A petty car thief in a small Southern Ohio town gets involved in an underground game of life and death.
It’s a rarity indeed, but I’ve now happened upon another one.
A movie which – at its outset, and for the first fifteen minutes or so – held ZERO promise. I was reminded of The Ladies of the House from a couple of years ago (check out my review here). The first bit of the film was simply not good – but then something shifted and the engagement level went through the roof and I was left with a dazzling film effort.
The latest example is Union Furnace from Metropol Pictures, from writer/director Nicholas Bushman.
Union Furnace (thus the film’s title) is a small, poor township in Ohio. There are a lot of down-on-their-luck folks – represented by the film’s lead, car-thief Cody (played by co-writer and producer Mike Dwyer) – yearning to build a better life for themselves and their families. Into their lives walk some high-stakes gamblers, headed by Lion (producer Seth Hammond). Eight varied people, including Cody, have their heads covered by sacks and are taken to some unknown rural location to engage in several games – to be bet on by a horde of masked gamblers. Each game gets progressively more perverse and dangerous. There’s a great deal of money at stake for these desperate contestants and as each game ends, the loser is removed – bringing the entire event down to the top two. The contestants are kept in a holding room between games – where the audience learns more about who they are and why they would submit themselves to this insanity. It all leads to a harrowing and frightening climax.
The film brings to mind something like The Most Dangerous Game – where the entitled and super-rich prey upon the desperation of poor or disadvantaged folks – using them as tools in a sickening exploitation for their own entertainment. It’s a tried-n-true concept – and so the film has a strong social message about class separation.
The acting in Union Furnace is kind of all over the place. There are clearly several amateurs sprinkled throughout the ensemble – but when the actors are good, they’re really good.
Seth Hammond is Lion. He’s the one who finds the contestants and moderates the games. Looking like an even sexier version (is that possible?) of Hell or High Water’s Ben Foster (they could be brothers) – he also has immense presence on-screen. At first I was a little apprehensive with his acting choices. The hotel room intro scene with Cody felt a little stilted, but he made up for any questionable moments with the exchange in his “office” with Cody – later in the film. This scene was absolutely hypnotic. And whether intended or not – the relationship between Lion and Cody was more than a little homoerotic. I think this odd connection was perfect. It never confirmed anything, but the hints were overwhelming. Hammond’s performance, and the chemistry with Dwyer (not a bad lead performance from Dwyer, but certainly not the best in the film) are easy highlights.
One of the other stand-out performances comes from Katie Keene as #6. As the stakes of each game heighten, her performance just gets better and better. She’s mostly silent at the beginning, but her first big scene (as #6 recounts the story of her father once playing the same game) is an automatic attention-getter. And even though she doesn’t speak all that much, her eyes tell the true tale of what this character is experiencing. The character is constantly on edge, and more than once – her emotional rawness pulled at my heartstrings. Her final moments in the game-room – simply stunning.
And of course, we’ll need to mention the performance from veteran character actor Keith David (Carpenter’s They Live and The Thing). His presence is quite a get for this indie-film, and his is the only recognizable name. Where so many other indie films get a genuine cult-star for a 5-second cameo (and then cash-in on their name) – the Union Furnace filmmakers truly get their money’s worth from David. He’s very present through the film and when he gets to shine (notably in his final moments on-screen), you’ll recognize and remember why this guy’s had such a great career.
In several images and moments, there are some Lynchian influences. The ‘70s paneling in the main gameroom – and the weird, silent characters (“Frogman”) inhabiting the background – felt like they were directly lifted from the Dean Stockwell – “A candy-colored clown they call the Sandman” – lip-sync scene in Lynch’s classic Blue Velvet. It’s odd and off-putting, in a good way. And the surrealness of one of the gamblers singing a warbly version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to one of the games – is a weirdo highlight.
The film also borrows from such films as Something Wicked this Way Comes (eccentric folks arrive in a small town to bring dreams to life, with a price), Angel Heart (Hammond’s enigmatic character Lion feels like De Niro’s Louis Cyphre – in concept) and Green Room (the blight of the location and the trashiness of this sort of extremist group).
Frankly, in the hands of a more seasoned filmmaker and with better overall actors (aside from those mentioned above) – Union Furnace could become a cult classic. There is an air of “lower budget” surrounding the film – which works to its advantage for the rawness and grittiness, but I see this being a great success if redone with a bit more money to back it up. That’s not to say that I won’t support the film as is – but I feel there is some wasted potential with such a strong central idea and not necessarily enough resources to completely bring it to roaring life. It’s so close. Continue reading for some of my reservations.
There were some noticeable editing issues early on – where transitions didn’t line up properly. But once the group of seven begin their life/death games, any potential technical issues were mostly ignored (if they were there at all) – as the story began to really cook. Always a valuable observation/lesson. If your story is truly gripping, it can overcome any possible missteps. So once again (let me get on my soapbox), it all has to start on the page.
There are also sound issues. In more than one scene, I lost long stretches of dialogue. I’m not sure if it was the mix – sometimes the background music overpowered the dialogue. It’s something to be re-examined for the next outing from these filmmakers. Of particular note was the scene in the holding room, where the final two contestants begin to crack. A lot of yelling, but I have no idea what was being said. Kinda important.
I can tell (most of the time) instantly how a film will add up by the time the end credits roll. I’ll begin formulating a plan of attack on the review and get a solid idea of how I’m going to rate it on our .5-star to 5-star scale.
Union Furnace went from an initial judgement of 2.5/3 to 3.5 and then finally ending on a solid 4-star review. I can assure you that this rarely happens.
And with that, I think you should check this out. It’s certainly not perfect, but it is extremely engaging, often-times disturbing and certainly unique.
Union Furnace is available on DVD/BluRay today.