Cinema has long provided a vivid canvas for Australian cinema to confront the country’s history of racial conflict, but there are many more stories to tell. Recent entries such as Warwick Thornton’s “Sweet Country” and Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” capture the simmering anger and resentment between white settlers and the Indigenous people in their crosshairs in disturbing detail. Set against the backdrop of sprawling rocky landscapes, these brutal Westerns give the genre renewed immediacy for a country working through the demons of the past through the stories it offers up.
“The Furnace” marks the latest compelling entry to this emerging subgenre, and while writer-director Roderick MacKay’s first feature hews to plenty of formulaic twists, it brings new faces to the traditional Outback survival tale, giving it fresh urgency in the process.
A tense and bloody chase across the Western Australian desert set against the 1890s Gold Rush, “The Furnace” focuses on the little-known plight of a “Ghan” cameleer — one of many Muslim and Sikh camel drivers who hauled materials across the unforgiving terrain, where the menacing gaze of the white man proved just as dangerous as the heat. The stakes are clear from the bracing opening moments, as the young turbaned Hanif (Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek) loses one of his peers to a gun-wielding racist angry that the nomads used his well, and Hanif almost suffers the same fate until his Aboriginal pal Woorak (“The Nightingale” breakout Baykali Ganambarr) intervenes. The sun beats down hard on unforgiving circumstances, and Hanif’s soon wandering the lawless land with a camel by his side, uncertain of his next move.
It’s a striking prologue made all the more unsettling by cinematographers Bonnie Elliott and Michael McDermott’s hazy gold imagery, but that palette soon takes on a double-meaning. In short order, Hanif comes across injured outlaw Mal (David Wenham), who has recently stolen a bag of British gold along with his now-deceased companions. Hanif, wide-eyed and triggered by another grungy white guy barking orders at him, falls into complacency on autopilot. In short order, Hanif has tossed Mal on his camel and agreed to help the cruel, weary man complete his quest to the nearby city of Kalgoorlie to deliver his sack of gold, promising Hanif a cut in the process. It doesn’t help that a team of British troops, including the menacing Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan), follow close behind.
The scenario is familiar enough from there, as Mal and Hanif — gun and spear providing the ultimate window into their power dynamic — roam across the desert in search of a wealthy payday to rescue them from the surrounding misery: Think “The Sisters Brothers” with more dire circumstances. In fact, it’s hard not to see a greater kinship with “Sisters Brothers” director Jacques Audiard, whose movies are teeming with the insatiable frustrations of Arab minorities forced to confront their religious values in an indifferent world. For Hanif, whom Malek plays with a remarkable blend of trembling fear and uncertainty, that yields a constant struggle beneath the surface; it’s fascinating to watch him play off the reckless plotting of foul-mouthed vulgarian Mal, who quickly devolves into a ham-fisted frontier cartoon. “I’ve always been in control,” Mal growls on cue, as he recovers from his wounds and plots their next moves. It’s up to Hanif to determine how much of that he should believe.
As the pair make their way through the empty canvas of the outback, MacKay’s script struggles to encompass the vast set of colonialist forces at hand (Mal shrugs off questions about his motives by telling Hanif, “It’s gold, son, man doesn’t need a reason”). The storytelling is too neat for its own good, arriving at a serendipitous shootout as if to hurry the plot along to its long final chapter. And yet the underlying concept remains a fascinating source of allegorical possibilities: The men make their way to a covert Chinese encampment, when the furnace of the title burns the British crown off the gold before exporting it out of the country. It’s a vivid image that encapsulates the tension at hand: “We did not come here as convicts,” says Hanif, “but we are prisoners to that.”
Ultimately, “The Furnace” excels whenever it doubles down on the bond between Hanif and various Aboriginal men he encounters along the way: victims of persecution uncertain if they can trust anyone beyond themselves. When these characters look at each other, their faces take the story to profound places. MacKay’s delicate compositions are so engrossing that “The Furnace” might have smoothed its rough edges with less talk, but there’s enough depth to the central conflict to make “The Furnace” worthy of the cinematic traditions that inspired it. The plight of men like Hanif has been lost to the history books, and this sensitive portrait rescues it with a rich, emotionally resonant lead performance that complicates the history of the Muslim diaspora and Australia’s dark past at once. The reckoning continues.
“The Furnace” premiered in the Horizons section of the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.