Easier for a Camel: MacKay Unearths Troubling History in Revisionist Western Debut
Like Jennifer Kent before him with 2018’s The Nightingale, director Roderick MacKay mines similar (if more obscure) historical barbarousness in the Outback for his debut, The Furnace. Like a revisionist Western featuring robberies, criminals, corrupt lawmen and brutal environments, two unlikely partners become entangled in the transport of stolen gold requiring the insignia of the crown being melted off before it can yield a profit. Featuring a diverse array of characters reflecting the significant racial make-up of a country with a fascinating history of shifting power structures only recently utilized as the horrific backdrop for a number of prolific directors, MacKay crafts an intriguing first feature around an unexpected perspective in a film both troubling and illuminating.
Set in 1897 Western Australia, Afghan cameleer Hanif (Ahmed Malek) has managed to make an uncomfortable scenario in the Outback as enjoyable as it can be, mostly thanks to his friendship with Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr), an indigenous man who has introduced Hanif to his tribe. But when Hanif’s fellow countryman Jundah (Kaushik Das) is brutally murdered by a white man who wants to take their camels, Hanif kills the perpetrator. But killing a white man will surely bring the wrath of the law, forcing Woorak and his mates to leave Hanif to his own devices. Eventually, Hanif stumbles upon wounded white man, Mal (David Wenham), who requests his assistance. But Mal, who was part of a gang who recently robbed the Mount Magnet Mine of gold bars, is being hunted by the Gold Squad, led by Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan), not to mention his own cohorts who he’s double-crossed. Wounded and in a state of decline, Mal promises Hanif a share of the profit if he can help him get to Kalgoorlie, where a partner of his awaits with a furnace who can melt the gold into unmarked bars.
Antipodean cinema hasn’t exactly shied away from trenchant racist history, and increasingly, from the likes of Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi to Rolf de Heer and Jennifer Kent, the atrocities waged upon women and the indigenous Aboriginal population have made their way into unforgettably, provoking cinematic proclamations. MacKay presents something a bit more genre-tinged through the unexpected lens of an Afghan cameleer, presented in an empathetic lead performance by Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek. A sort-of wide-eyed innocent, his search for fortune and glory are interrupted irrevocably. Paired with the ailing Mal (a name which proves to be more than apt), a hard-won camaraderie between the two men, tied together as a last hope, finds The Lord of the Rings alum David Wenham in ill-repair, whose presence threatens Hanif’s tenuous allegiance to his only real friend and ally, Woorak (Baicalin Ganambarr, who made an unforgettable debut in Kent’s The Nightingale).
But The Furnace isn’t a tale of friendship, per se, but more along the lines of the type of innate greed worthy of McTeague. As the one-track Sergeant Shaw, Jay Ryan points out to his son, a young man being groomed for the inevitable cynicism which seems to define all his father’s colleagues in the “Gold Squad,” to forget feeling guilty for their dogged pursuit and abuse of people crossing their path since, after all, the only reason anyone is there is out of selfishness. This sentiment, as MacKay’s narrative leans into, of course isn’t the case for the cameleers who have been tricked into indentured servitude after the camels they handle were imported by the British Empire (as the opening credits point out, men from India, Afghanistan and Persia suffered this fate).
A violent showdown with the Chinese immigrants who have the eponymous furnace needed to melt down the gold into unmarked bars (one wishes MacKay had managed to include more of their storyline, since they are a fascinating crew introduced in the third act, including their methods of transporting gold out of the country) ensues. While not all hope is lost, Hanif’s racial identity becomes an interesting part of the narrative fabric.
Featuring some vibrant moments with a tallow man (who makes carcasses out of dead animals, a process which seems to have also taken his mind) and an ungodly amount of flies which plague both animal and human subjects, The Furnace balances genre elements with realistic intrigues favorably, bolstered by empathetic characterizations, specifically from Malek.
Reviewed virtually on September 4th at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Orizzonti (Horizons) Competition – 116 Mins