How ‘Out of the Furnace’ and ‘Killing Them Softly’ Make Sense of 2008’s American Dream

By  · Published on December 10th, 2013

“There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show.”

The above summary is of an an impromptu speech The Wire showrunner David Simon delivered at “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas” in Sydney this week. Simon’s work as producer has been characterized by a distinct effort to represent the “great horror show” America he mentions ‐ the America without social mobility, the America where people are left to survive in the marginal social position they’ve inherited, the America without special interest groups to make a perpetual underclass visible in the media and worth pandering to for politicians’ votes. The Wire, as Simon attests directly, sought to represent the conditions and lives of people who are “economically worthless,” a series that lent a rare lens to ordinary people’s endurance in the face of total invisibility in the public sphere.

Mainstream contemporary movies and television shows have, perhaps until very recently, almost exclusively surveyed the lives of those with considerable economic worth: audiences with expendable income that can be advertised to during commercial breaks or be expected to buy most movie tickets. But Out of the Furnace and Killing Them Softly ‐ both of which take place in 2008 and were released almost exactly a year apart ‐ offer an incisive lens into a hermetically sealed, economically deprived, and otherwise underrepresented American underclass.

During the first act of Scott Cooper’s gritty, dark tale of brotherhood, vigilante justice, and finding principles in the absence of them, protagonist Russell Baze (Christian Bale) finishes a beer as Ted Kennedy lauds Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic convention. Suddenly, the film is revealed to be something of a period piece, recasting its opening scenes as specific to five years ago. But then time becomes disorientingly out-of-joint and unspecific, a strange maneuver for a film that made a conscious effort to establish where its events take place on the recent historical timeline.

Russell gets in a car accident and heads to jail. We can only assume that the alcohol in Russell’s body has something to do with his sentence, but we are never provided that nature of the charge, nor given any perspective on precisely how long he’s been in jail. Given the film’s successive series of events, Russell can only have served a few years at most. Yet where the rest of Out of the Furnace lies on its previously established timeline is up only for speculation ‐ no subsequent access to mediated representations of recent historical events elucidates this aspect further.

A Buried Capsule

This temporal confusion seems integral to Out of the Furnace’s depiction of a white working class milieu of the American Rust Belt. When Russell is released from prison, some circumstances of his life are demonstrably different (his father passed away, his girlfriend moved on), yet nothing else has changed about his home base of North Braddock, Pennsylvania. Russell renews his priorities to better his and his family’s quality of life: he fixes his house, gets back to work at the local mill, and tries to find a legitimate option for his Iraq vet brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) that will motivate him to give up a life of low pay/high stakes bare-knuckle boxing matches. But all the while, Cooper’s consistent vision of an economically depressed northeastern landscape makes it appear as if Russell was in jail for only a day.

Not only are these characters’ options no better than they were in 2008, their problems have exacerbated. Rodney desperately attempts to cope with the experience of being abandoned by a country he served. Yes, he can find “honest work” at the mill, but there are no opportunities for social mobility. Russell’s romanticization of working for a living seems a relic of the past, one that perhaps died with his father. In fact, to see industrial labor in a recent-present-set film at all jump-starts an experience of being dislocated in time.

That’s why Rodney’s protestations ring indelibly true. As somebody unrecognized for his work at home and abroad, he knows that a life of honest work is hardly enough to be a master of one’s domain. It makes one a subject: subject to layoffs, subject to long term illness, and, most dauntingly, subject to invisibility. It’s Rodney’s existential crisis in the face of the latter that he fights so fiercely against.

Back From The Past

The brief Ted Kennedy TV moment of Out of the Furnace is directly reminiscent of another recently-set period piece: Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.

Killing Them Softly, like Out of the Furnace, opened wide the first weekend of December opposite no other new wide releases, divided critics, went largely unrecognized despite its pedigree, vividly depicts lives colored by careers in violence with an unrelenting style opposite the backdrop of the 2008 election, and even costars Sam Shepard.Yes, there are a lot of parallels.

Where Out of the Furnace features its Ted Kennedy moment, Killing Them Softly litters the film’s background with stump speeches, billboards, and other reminders of an all-too-recent economic and political context.

Critics of the film claimed its political declarations were overdrawn and overtly telegraphed, summarized too conveniently by Jackie Cogan’s (Bratt Pitt) concluding monologue about Jefferson’s slaves and America the business. While this moment does speak a great deal about what the film is attempting to achieve (and connects Killing Them Softly with prior uses of the gangster film to stage critiques of capitalism), it’s also something of a red herring. It’s the only moment that a character overtly acknowledges what’s been happening on television.

Viewing this moment as a summary dismisses the film’s rich depiction of a recession narrative throughout. Frankie (Scott McNairy) articulates the abysmal circular logic of current working class options by telling a story about seeking a job in order to buy a car only to receive a legitimate job offer that requires a car. Even more, The Driver’s (Richard Jenkins) discussions with Cogan about an invisible board unwilling to get their hands dirty in the dirty business they profit from illustrates an all-consuming yet ever-abstract corporate logic that imbues everything from a coffee purchase to for-profit murder.

But perhaps the most radical thing about Killing Them Softly is how decidedly uneventful it is. At no point in the film is the card game robbery meant to illustrate an exception to or disruption of the way things usually work. It’s simply part of the impersonal maintenance of business, including the (ultimately invisible) criminal working class whose lives meet predictable and unceremonious ends. Bureaucratic delays, unreliable employees, and constant negotiations over other peoples’ money all take part in an unremarkable, perpetual, and structurally greedy scramble for capital. Life isn’t cheap in Killing Them Softly — it’s actually quite expensive, but that’s not the same as saying it matters.

Into The Fire

Of course, the struggles represented in these two films are, to contrast Simon’s television work, of a distinctly white underclass. But this seems to be the reason we’re seeing wide-release films about the economically marginalized in the first place. As Simon observes,

“[It’s] kind of interesting in this last recession to see the economy shrug and start to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable to the drug war, say from methamphetamine, or they became unable to qualify for college loans. And all of a sudden a certain faith in the economic engine and the economic authority of Wall Street and market logic started to fall away from people. And they realized it’s not just about race, it’s about something even more terrifying. It’s about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?”

The extent of this recession, Simon argues, brought about a new sense of class awareness. And these films, in turn, portray a class characterized by desperation that does not conform to the demographics stereotypically associated with economic marginalization.

So the reasoning behind the 2007–08 setting of Out of the Furnace and Killing Them Softly may seem didactic at first ‐ even people in positions of typical social power are notably struggling; that hopey changey stuff didn’t quite pan out like we thought; the new boss is same as the old boss, etc. Per example, Todd Gilchrist reads this temporal setting as an orienting framework directly supporting the political and economic of Out of the Furnace:

“Cooper and his co-writer Brad Ingelsby set Out of the Furnace in 2008, and while five years ‐ especially recent ones ‐ don’t seem like a big deal, it’s a crucial choice for the film’s thematic underpinnings. Specifically, Russell and Rodney are the embodiment of the American Dream, or perhaps the American people, who for better or worse gained a renewed sense of hope in 2008 that things were turning around or otherwise improving.”

While the Baze family no doubt represents a nostalgic idea of an American Dream in which white working class life could bring some stability, to assert that 2008’s slogan of hope was meant for a family like the Bazes is to assume these characters interpreted such a message as meant for them in the first place. Again and again, Out of the Furnace paints a working class world that is dramatically isolated, even stuck in time. Russell and Rodney have no tangible investment for or against the words and endorsements of Ted Kennedy (or Obama or McCain). These are messages meant for the middle class and above, for that “valuable” demographic seen as worthy of marketing ideas to in the first place.

Likewise, Frankie’s opening walk through a desolate tunnel in Killing Them Softly’s Boston/New Orleans hybrid, with McCain/Obama posters in the background, is not meant to illustrate his knowledge of and investment in these images and messages, but the gap between his world and our own.

The communities of Out of the Furnace and Killing Them Softly are all too entrenched in the American class horror show; they know better than to invest in the fantasy of a legitimate way out. The importance of the Ted Kennedy moment in Out of the Furnace and the political media that wallpapers Killing Them Softly is not strictly the meaning of these messages, but their ambiance. Cogan’s ending monologue is meant as a revelation only to the person he directs it at; to everyone else, it’s business as usual.

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