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'Out of the Furnace,' Into the Reality of Ramapo Families

Thompson on Hollywood By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood November 19, 2013 at 4:18PM

The feverish-but-satisfying drama “Out of the Furnace” is a fictional account of brothers (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck) living in a Rust Belt Pennsylvania that’s dying for jobs. But certain aspects of the story may turn out to be troublingly nonfictional for writer/director Scott Cooper, whose movie might play fast and loose with geography, but bases its villains on very real people.
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Harrelson and Bale face off in "Out of the Furnace."
Harrelson and Bale face off in "Out of the Furnace."

The feverish-but-satisfying drama “Out of the Furnace” is a fictional account of brothers (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck) living in a Rust Belt Pennsylvania that’s dying for jobs. But certain aspects of the story may turn out to be troublingly nonfictional for writer/director Scott Cooper, whose movie might play fast and loose with geography, but bases its villains on very real people.

Specifically: The character played by Woody Harrelson – portrayed as an “inbred” psychopath who deals hard drugs from a secluded community in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains – is so obviously inspired by the people who actually live in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains that you wonder if anyone involved with the film, from Cooper to Relativity Media, ever thought to consult a lawyer; you hope they bought E&O insurance. It would be one thing if Harrelson’s ruthless, vicious crime boss was, like Vito Corleone, merely inspired by, say, Carlo Gambino. But Harrelson’s character is named Harlan DeGroat – DeGroat being one of the chief family names in a community that now refers to itself as the Ramapough Indians, but has for decades been the subject of tall tales, fearful rumors, and no shortage of outright bias.

Here’s how Ben McGrath described the world in a New Yorker magazine article of 2010, which was precipitated by the killing by park rangers of a resident named Emil Mann (The Manns being another principal family in those particular hills):

“Mountain people” is a euphemism for what locals used to call “Jackson Whites”—a racial slur that the referents equate with the word “nigger.” They call themselves Ramapough Mountain Indians, or the Ramapough Lenape Nation, using an old Dutch spelling for the name of the river that cuts through the Hudson and North Jersey Highlands, although suburban whites tend to think of them as racially indeterminate clansfolk. The Ramapoughs number a few thousand, marry largely among themselves, and are concentrated in three primary settlements: on and around Stag Hill, in Mahwah; in the village of Hillburn, New York, in the hollow below Stag Hill’s northern slope; and, west of Stag Hill, in Ringwood, New Jersey, in the remains of an old iron-mining complex. The settlements span two states and three counties—a circumstance with socially marginalizing consequences—but they are essentially contiguous if you travel through the woods, by foot or A.T.V.”

The article suggests that park rangers may have simply freaked out. As McGrath wrote elsewhere, “area teen-agers, recalling decades-old legends of unsuspecting people who climbed Stag Hill and never returned, dare one another to drive up at night... The Manns, the Van Dunks, the De Groats, the De Freeses, have lived and hunted there for generations.”

Repeated phone calls to the Ramapough tribal offices – where a woman name Carol DeGroat is in charge of the geneology department -- went unreturned. Cooper, too, was unavailable for comment. But one suspects that “Out of the Furnace,” with an original screenplay written by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, may have jumped into a PR fire. Or a legal one. “Normally, you not only change people’s names but you change character traits so they’re not recognizable,” said one prominent LA-based entertainment lawyer, who wanted to remain nameless. “I can’t draw a conclusion, of course, but it’s certainly a potential problem.”

This article is related to: Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper, Scott Cooper, Woody Harrelson, Awards Season Roundup


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