A few minutes of watching the news lately will reflect an ongoing division in race, but the one divide that seems to be more prevalent is the one between blue- and white-collar Americans. The Purge franchise has tapped into this and the exploitation of the classes being ramped up to a high degree. But personally I feel that’s a franchise that still is missing a rawness that never quite allows you to feel that it is real; it’s like a dark fairytale of what may come in the distant future. Union Furnace, instead, takes a more grounded approach to the upper class taking advantage of those in need and presents what could be a terrifying reality going on in small town America. While I appreciate the sense of realism,I have to admit I wish it wasn’t so gun-shy and afraid to take us into this dark hole of humanity. How dark does it go? It all depends if you’re willing to play along.
Cody (Mike Dwyer) is a down-on-his-luck car thief who has debts all around but simply has no way of paying them off. It’s bad to the point he knows a beatdown — if not a bullet — is in his near future. When Cody crosses paths with a slick southern gentleman (Seth Hammond), he is offered a way out and even the chance to make more money: all he has to do is agree to show up at a certain location. When Cody does arrive, he’s taken to a room full of other strangers where they are asked to play along in an all-or-nothing game. Each round, the money they win will increase, but if they lose they take home nothing.
The crowd they are playing for are all masked individuals. The only one they seem to recognize is the master of ceremonies: it’s the southern gentleman who now conceals his face behind a gold lion mask. The simplicity is what works here and does keep this grounded in reality, but what kills me are the games the characters have to play along with. They range from musical chairs to holding a metal rod that is hooked to car batteries (the winner is who can hold on the longest). It’s frustrating because there is no sense of stakes being raised, and as people are presumably killed off, it’s done so in a manner that the viewer simply doesn’t connect with the character and their demise is too easily set up.
While I can appreciate the performances, the film simply lacks anything that can connect us to the people in the film. Is this supposed to be the point, where we as an audience are supposed to be no different from the cheering crowd hiding behind their masks? If this is the case, okay…but my lack of empathy is because I’ve seen characters that are so one-dimensional that to call them a cliché is almost too kind. Where’s the heart in these characters? Where is their desire to survive? One mentions having a kid, but, again that’s not building a character. If anything it’s the master of ceremonies who seems to be delivering the most personality, and he’s doing so by remaining mysterious. And we don’t even really mind what he’s doing.
The film holds back its punches too often. One of the movie’s more disturbing scenes is only hinted at and is simply left open for the audience to figure out. Okay we see two of the characters naked and visibly shaken, but why? We get flashbacks to a moment when the characters seem to go in a Fear Factor direction and have to eat some nasty stuff. But this is no big deal and nothing a few drinks can’t fix, it would appear. So apparently, we never get to even find out what the most interesting part of the film was about.
If I was on the fence about the movie before, it’s the film’s final scene that loses me. I’m not going to get into it, but it simply doesn’t work for me and even had me muttering an expletive (or two). It’s not about happy endings or doom and gloom or even shock endings, but at least be somewhat grounded to the reality you’ve depicted to the audience the previous 80 minutes. Endings are a big deal, it’s the last thing your audience experiences and you want to leave them with a feeling of satisfaction of some sort. To go from gritty, dark, and bleak to suddenly giving us a Hallmark ending that is undeserved feels like another cop-out the film takes.
While the film is entertaining and does well on a small budget, it’s still underwhelming and even frustrating at times with the directions it takes. One major plus I can take from this is that I’m curious to see what writer/director Nicholas Bushman could do with a bigger budget and a more polished script. There is plenty of potential here, but this isn’t the knockdown break-out hit this could have been.