The new Australian western The Furnace opens with text explaining that, in the 19th century, the British government imported camels into the Outback, as they were one of the few animals able to both navigate and withstand the region’s harsh terrain. Oftentimes, their Afghan, Persian, and Indian handlers were forced into indentured servitude, unwittingly becoming slaves to the Monarch. They were seen not only as unwelcome guests, but also a dangerous threat due to their connection to England, the color of their skin, and their religious beliefs. It is perhaps for these reasons that the Aboriginal tribes of Australia often took pity on these men, feeling a kinship with these “outsiders,” and allowing them to become part of their way of life. The Furnace follows one such man, Hanif (Ahmed Malek), shipped from Afghanistan by a father who saw him as nothing more than a disappointment. After the death of his friend at the hands of a white man — and his insistence on helping a bullet-ridden gold thief, Mal (David Wenham, The Lord of the Rings) — Hanif is shunned from the Aboriginal tribe he once called family. From there, the story unfolds as most Westerns do, with Hanif and Mal on the run from both the law and a shady man from Mal’s past referred to only as “The Devil.” The symbolism is not subtle.
Granted, looking for subtlety in most Westerns is like digging for gold in a diamond mine. Here making his feature-length debut, writer-director Roderick MacKay ticks off all the genre’s requisite thematic checkboxes: morality, loss of faith, the true price of greed, vengeance, redemption. It soon becomes clear, though, that what we are witnessing is not just your basic Western yarn but also Hanif’s very own walkabout, his personal journey to discover both who he is as a man and his place in the world. It is a somewhat clever twist on a story that’s been told time and again, and a welcome one, as MacKay isn’t offering much depth when it comes to the horrors of British Imperialism, which feels at most like window dressing. A subplot involving a British general (Jay Ryan) and his fractured relationship with his son feels especially superfluous, existing only for Hanif to come to a personal realization that frankly did not need such story acrobatics. Lacking the brutality — and, frankly, the ambition — of recent Outback westerns such as The Proposition and The Nightingale, The Furnace feels almost quaint: It’s an involving, gorgeously shot tale that provides entertainment and not much else. This admittedly may not have been MacKay’s true intent, but considering everything currently going on in the world, I’ll take small pleasures where I can find them.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 2.