Writer/director Roderick MacKay brings his audience a compelling thriller in The Furnace, thanks to a stand out performance from Ahmed Malek and a landscape that shows the brutal Australia desert at its best.
To escape a harsh existence and return home, a young Afghan cameleer partners with a mysterious bushman on the run with two 400oz Crown-marked gold bars. Together the unlikely pair must outwit a zealous police sergeant and his troopers in a race to reach a secret furnace – the one place where they can safely reset the bars to remove the mark of the Crown.
The Furnace whether on purpose or accidentally discusses the identity of Australia and the barbaric either lawfully or unlawful nature of white men. Unbeknownst to some is the high Southwest and Southern Asian influx into the country in its formative years. All trying to make something of the new land and the gold rush around it.
While there are certainly conflicts within their races, MacKay almost at all times views them from a more sensitive viewpoint. Chinese, Asian or Aborigine they are just trying to do what they can to survive. Whereas white men are doing what they can to make a profit or actions that are just for themselves. Be it Jay Ryan’s Sergeant Shaw, who is almost full of bloodlust than to keep with the law. He has lost what was possibly once there and only finds it later in the film when presented with no other options and even then anger fills him as much as pain does.
Then we have Mal who wants the gold to profit, to escape and be something, he doesn’t trust and will do what he can to get ahead, even as death comes for him. Trying to escape his woes from Yates who will travel for days and many miles just to enact vengeance. None of that is present with the non-white characters. Aborigines are just wanting to live their lives, they see nothing in the “yellow rock”. Too much has already been taken from them. While the Chinese in the film are less law-abiding, they are not particularly living a grand life.
We then come to our Asian and Arabic characters who yes have come to a new world to make money, but have done so as legally as possible. They know these types of conditions and have the resources to manage. Most importantly they respect it and respect others. Which makes the opening scene so jarring when we see what one simple futile and stupid action does to Hanif.
This brings in MacKay’s other theme and one that is far more central to The Furnace. The father and son relationship. Sergeant Shaw is steadfast at keeping his son with him, but safe from danger and appears to more loyal to his boy than to anyone else. Hanif followed Jundah to venture into a business for themselves, away from the British who have not only taken over their lands but this one to, the one they work for. Of course, it is a fateful decision. Yet a strong bond is apparent as Hanif continually reminisces about Jundah and his relationship with him is important.
Due to losing Jundah early on Hanif is almost desperate for another father figure. Going as far as deserting an entire family dynamic that he has to follow him. All while believing that it is for the gold to return home. Sadly for Hanif, Mal is not the father type and their relationship is almost out of necessity. Survival and escape, though over time a parental relationship does begin between the two.
The cast as a whole are faultless in their performances, you believe everything and anything that they do. Ahmed Malek’s portrayal as the continually lost Hanif is at time heart-wrenching. With every decision he makes it feels as If it is the wrong one, he is filled with self-doubt and regret at all times. Couple that with his suspicion as he knows the mistakes he keeps making cause for a complex character. David Wenham as the tired and weather Mal brings some grounding to the film as he allows his experience to soak in the environment and continually changing circumstances the two embroil themselves in.
For all of the themes, this is an out and out Western, it just happens to be as far East as you can imagine. Cinematographers Bonnie Elliott and Michael McDermott do some amazing work here to show the full desolation and isolation of our characters and their journey. Nothing is soft or easy in this landscape and they photograph the harsh reality of the Australian desert superbly.
Where The Furnace hurts is in its pacing and editing. This is a film that in truth goes on for just a bit too long and when some sort of momentum is gained. It is halted immediately with a fireside chat. Yes these are used to give the characters more depth and for the audience to learn more about them, but continually being halted causes the film to stutter when it should almost be in nonstop motion. It should be remembered that Mal is not only being chased by the authorities but also from the man whom he stole from. To stop for so long and so often extinguishes the urgency of the matter.
For a debut feature, however, MacKay has done something wonderful here. MacKay should be actively applauded for the grand scope the film takes. However, the lack of momentum grinds the film down far too often.
Signature Entertainment present The Furnace on Digital Platforms now.
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