By Eric Kelsey
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - A brief drive through Pittsburgh's down-and-out steel mill borough of Braddock at the time of the economic downturn in 2009 was all it took, and director Scott Cooper knew where he wanted to set his next film.
The problem: He didn't have a story.
Now, the distillation of the time spent among Braddock's working-class single-family homes and rusted-out iron furnaces along the Monongahela River has delivered the elements Cooper needed for "Out of the Furnace" - a tale of brothers and revenge. Starring Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, it will be in wide release in U.S. movie theaters on Friday.
"I was struck by how cinematic (it was) and how it dripped with atmosphere," said Cooper of Braddock. The borough reached its economic peak in the 1950s and '60s but went into a steep decline in the early '80s, when the area's major blast furnaces closed.
Braddock's population today stands at around 2,100, and it has lost more than 80 percent of its residents since 1960.
"I knew that I wanted to shoot a film here and I wrote it specifically for Braddock," Cooper added. "I wasn't going to make the movie if I didn't shoot it there."
"Out of the Furnace," distributed by independent studio Relativity Media, tells the story of steel mill worker Russell Baze (Bale) and his younger brother, Rodney (Affleck), an Iraq War veteran haunted by his tours of duty, who would do anything to avoid working in the mills like his brother and father.
What struck Bale about the Russell character, a good man to whom bad things happen, was the change in Braddock's fortune and how Russell was determined to stay despite the odds.
"It was someone who feels so connected to their own land," said the Welsh-born Bale, a self-described rootless person who grew up in Europe and the United States. "Even if something disastrous was to happen, they would rather stay there."
The film - which features several past Oscar nominees and winners, including Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard - adds a working-class quality to the recent spate of Hollywood fare that touches on the social anxieties and financial insecurity wrought by the recession.
"I wanted to shine a light on what we as Americans were experiencing in these past five turbulent years: economic distress, fighting wars on two fronts and having those soldiers return, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and having a very difficult time assimilating back into life," said Cooper, whose 2009 debut film "Crazy Heart" earned critical acclaim and a best actor Oscar for Jeff Bridges.
REVENGE AS LOVE
The methodical thriller is set in motion when the emotionally volatile and heavily in debt Rodney becomes enmeshed in an underground boxing scene run by local bookmaker John Petty (Dafoe).
But when Rodney and Petty disappear after a fight run by diabolical New Jersey drug dealer Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson), Russell takes matters into his own hands to find DeGroat as police drag their heels in pursuit of the hillbilly kingpin.
The film, which shows revenge as an act taken in equal measures of rage and love, sets its most violent moments in the abandoned Carrie Furnace near Braddock that once roared, producing iron for United States Steel Corporation.
"I couldn't find that myself if I built it," Cooper said he told himself when he found the site. "I wanted that to be the place where Casey Affleck, where we first meet him fighting, and where Woody Harrelson's character meets his maker."
Bale, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for the 2010 boxing drama "The Fighter," said he was unable to shake the story of Russell avenging the loss of his brother from his mind after he read the script.
"He's a man of incredible stoicism and patience ... who, when everything is lost, allows these impulses to come through that he had always had," the actor said.
But it was also Braddock, its boarded-up houses and vacant lots, seeking its own retribution to lost jobs and lost hope that resonated with Bale.
"Something about the extreme change of fortune in the town," he said. "The notion of globalization and outsourcing of the American heartland and manufacturing, and this character who stayed."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Gunna Dickson)