When I first saw a print ad for Scott Cooper’s latest film, Out of the Furnace, I was excited that someone had made a film of Thomas Bell’s 1942 novel, Out of This Furnace. While the film, set in Braddock, focused on a local steelworker, and written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, has much in common with the novel, the differences reflect not just different historical moments but also different ideas about working-class life.
Cooper claims that he didn’t know about the novel when he came up with the title for the film. Once he learned about it, he kept his title despite the possibility of confusion, because, he explains, both the community and Christian Bale’s character “come out of the furnace.” Other than the usual images of decaying buildings and abandoned plants that have become iconic in documentaries and fictional films set in deindustrialized places, we see little explicit evidence of how Braddock has been shaped by the rise and decline steelmaking. Bale’s character, Russell Baze, is represented as embodying the positive values fostered in working-class communities. He “comes out of the furnace” with a firm commitment to family and an inner strength that serves as the film’s load-bearing beam. But in the novel, what emerges from the furnace is not just tough individuals or a strong sense of community, but something far more important: a union.
The pivotal moment in the film, when its narrative shifts from tracing the slow decline in the lives of two working-class white men in a declining steel town into a tale of revenge, is a fairly quiet scene at the police station, when Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker) explains the challenges that he and New Jersey police face in tracking down the menacing Appalachian drug boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Barnes doesn’t have jurisdiction, and in rural western New Jersey, there’s a long history of suspicion of and resistance to law enforcement. Regardless of whether this claim is realistic, the explanation highlights the limited power of institutions. Working-class men are, the film seems to suggest, on their own, and the last third of the film follows Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) as they pursue DeGroat on their own. Once they track him down, law enforcement steps in, only to reveal its inadequacy again. As DEA agents in full gear march toward the now-abandoned drug house, DeGroat is shooting up somewhere else. In the end, Russell insists on doing the job himself, luring DeGroat to Braddock, tracking him through an abandoned mill, and finally shooting him with a deer hunting rifle.
Law enforcement isn’t the only institution that doesn’t work in this film. Corporations care only about getting cheaper steel, while the U.S. Army ignores both the economic and emotional needs of soldiers like Rodney, and unions are not even mentioned. The only institution that works at all is the local bar, and even there, the only help available is corrupt and ineffective. The bar owner’s loans support Rodney’s gambling, and the fights he arranges accomplish nothing except getting himself and Rodney killed, which sets up the revenge plot at the end of the film. The idea that institutions are ineffective in supporting working-class people is not new. As John Russo and I argued in writing about local responses to deindustrialization a decade ago, that explains why working-class people don’t trust institutions. Jennifer Silva finds a similar attitude in her recent study of young working-class people, and a recent entry in the New York Times’s series on inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz notes that people have lost “faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them.”
In a way, of course, that do-it-yourself attitude reflects working-class culture. Psychologist David Greene highlighted the centrality of self-reliance in an essay on the “matrix” of working-class identity: “Whatever one needed, whatever the situation or task called for, you could make do. . . . If you needed it or wanted it, it was up to you to find it, fix it or build it.” Cooper makes a point of this in a scene where Russell engages some low-level drug dealers by way of an admiring conversation about their restoration of a classic car. That self-reliance is also central to Russell’s character. Early on, when he learns that his brother owes money to the bar owner, Russell steps in to pay off Rodney’s debt. We also see it when Russell is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction; one of his first acts is fixing up the house he and his brother have inherited from their father.
We’re a long way from Out of This Furnace, which celebrates not only the resilience and family commitments of steelworkers but also the potential power of collectivity. After describing how steelworkers and their families survived poverty, mill accidents, and illness through internal strength and mutual support, Bell ends his novel with the formation of the Steelworkers Organizing Collaborative in the late 30s. Writing in 1942, he couldn’t have known how much unions would improve the lives of steelworkers, nor could he have predicted the demise of the industry or the union’s inability, ultimately, to protect workers and their communities, like Braddock, from the ravages of deindustrialization. By the time Cooper conjures up the story of the Baze brothers, not only is the local mill about to close but the union is so irrelevant that it is never mentioned.
Both Bell and Cooper recognize the commitment to family and the strength of character that might emerge from economic struggle and hard work. Both recognized that working-class people can’t count on employers to look out for them. But Bell believed that workers and their communities could protect themselves by standing together, while Cooper suggests that self-reliance is the only option, even if it isn’t a good one.
Out of the Furnace is not a great movie, and reviewers have noted a variety of flaws, including its reliance on working-class stereotypes and the emphasis on violence and revenge. But it’s worth watching, especially alongside a reading of Out of This Furnace.
If we read the film in light of Bell’s romanticized vision of working-class collectivity, we recognize that what has been lost is not just jobs and opportunity but the basis for hope. If we read the novel with the film, we might be reminded that the only real hope lies in people working together to stand up for the right to a decent life.