The Treasure of the Sierra Madre echoes through the arid plains of this hardy, old-fashioned yarn. Like John Huston’s classic, The Furnace is a story of gold, greed and amorality with added grit that’s typical of the Australian ‘Meat Pie’ Western. Indeed, it comes during a brutal renaissance in the genre that started with The Proposition and has been followed by such films as Sweet Country, The Nightingale and True History of the Kelly Gang. With its mix of timeless themes and stark milieu, The Furnace joins this canon indepicting a continental history replete with prejudice, cruelty and psychopathic British lawmen.
Our focaliser is Hanif (Ahmed Malek), an Afghan cameleer imported by the Empire to move freight across Australia’s vast interior. Life in the wilderness is harsh, but Hanif finds good company in a group of Aborigines and a Sikh named Jundah (Kaushik Das). However, this is a land of heat, disease and roving savagery. After an act of senseless violence rattles the group, Hanif finds a wounded prospector near their camp. His name is Mal (David Wenham), and he immediately goes about recruiting the nervous Hanif. With a bullet in his side and a horse that’s gone AWOL, Mal needs Hanif if he is to sell his gold bars, which must be melted first to remove the Crown mark. Hanif could easily kill him, but he has neither the knowledge nor the contacts to melt them himself. Consequently, the men forge an uneasy alliance and hit the trail to Kalgoorlie, home of the titular furnace.
The leads make for an entertaining pair. Mal is a typical Australian roughneck; tough, leathery and with a troll’s sense of humour – “Just yanking yer chain, son.” Hanif is suspicious and earnest by comparison, acutely aware of the kill or be killed ethos that governs the frontier. It is this brutal, animalistic method of conflict resolution that steers the film’s tension and intrigue.
Soon, they realise that Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan) and his lawmen are pursuing the gold. Shaw appears to be another British psychopath in the mould of Fitzpatrick (True History of the Kelly Gang, Nicholas Hoult) and the spectacularly evil Hawkins (The Nightingale, Sam Claflin).However, while antagonistic, Shaw’s characterisation focuses not on cruelty but the dynamic with Corporal Briggs (Erik Thomson), his older yet notably subordinate colleague.
The threat of chaos looms over Mal and Hanif’s trek across Western Australia, which is captured in a scattershot tableau of towns, plains, night skies and riverbanks. You feel confident that treachery will come from outside rather than within, but the extent of the pair’s loyalties are impossible to tell in this world of thievery and betrayal. Either way, The Furnace does not have the gut punch power of other ‘Meat Pie’ Westerns. It’s ending doesn’t quite land, either. But this quasi-buddy film is loaded with just enough danger, suspense and elemental hardship for it to remain a robust piece of storytelling.