Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

The first thing that must be said about this movie is that it should not work. It's a prequel to one of the most mind-blowing, groundbreaking, and just plain revolutionary action movies of the 21st century—and prequels are a bad idea in most cases, but all the more so when the character they revolve around has already given you their entire backstory in their original introduction, which is also the final, culminating act of their character arc. (To put it another way, if you had asked me, nine years ago, which character I thought offered more fertile ground for prequel storytelling, Imperator Furiosa or Han Solo, I would have picked Han without a moment's hesitation, and I don't even like Han that much.) And it's a follow-up to a movie whose chief virtue lies in its conciseness—in being a single, drawn-out, pulse-pounding, increasingly deranged car chase. Which means you can either try to repeat that accomplishment, which will inevitably feel a bit old hat; or you can do something different, and thus lose the shocking originality of the movie you're trying to recall.

The next thing that should be said about this movie is that even if you accept all these inherent limitations on its concept, it does a lot of things that an action movie isn't "supposed" to do. Its structure is episodic. It spends a lot of time around secondary characters, relegating our heroine to silent observer of the battles for supremacy amongst the Wasteland's various warlords, most of whom are not people we're supposed to care about or sympathize with—there are no Nux or the Wives here, and Furiosa spends much of her story alone and friendless. It takes a very long time to show us the up-and-coming young star who has taken over this iconic role (personally, I think that Alyla Browne, who plays Furiosa for the first hour of the movie, should have equal billing with Anya Taylor-Joy), and when it does she is mostly silent, and her face is almost entirely covered up. It adds one wrinkle to the known shape of Furiosa's story, a doomed love story with her predecessor as driver of the war rig, Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), but this relationship is barely sketched in, deliberately chaste and over almost as soon as it has started. And when it comes to the one question that Mad Max: Fury Road wasn't able to answer—why did Furiosa spend so long serving Immortan Joe, and why did she choose to escape?—it vaguely gestures at an answer, but doesn't really deliver.

And now of course it must be acknowledged that Furiosa does work. I won't get into the question of whether it's as good as Fury Road; it obviously can't deliver the same sharp blow to the head as that movie did, and once you allow for that, the two movies are too different for a side-by-side comparison to make much sense. But it does make you feel the same exhilaration, the same joyful disbelief at the fact that someone can do this with the cinematic medium, the same pulse-pounding desire for this ride to just keep going and going, and the same profound connection to and investment in its characters. Which obviously raises the question: how?

It's tempting to give that rather glib answer that is also a fundamental truism: you can do anything if you're good enough. You can break every storytelling rule, take on the most hoary and unpromising of concepts, deny the audience all the markers they've been taught to anticipate that tell them when and how to feel, but if you do it with enough talent and care, with genuine thought about what everything on screen is intended to achieve, with a complete refusal of commonplaces and clichés, you'll produce a masterpiece. And to a certain extent, this is the answer. Each of the steps along Furiosa's journey that bring her from the beginning of this movie to the beginning of Fury Road is a familiar, unsurprising one: she's abducted from her idyllic home in the green place, makes multiple attempts to escape, rises through the ranks of Immortan Joe's mechanics and drivers, finds love and loses it. But each is executed with a freshness that tells us that someone sat down and thought: what would be the most thrilling, visually interesting way to tell this story that everyone has told before? So when a young Furiosa is abducted by a pair of lowlife marauders, her mother (Charlee Fraser) pursues them across the desert, leading to a tense game of cat-and-mouse, of trying to make better time while also concealing your tracks, of raiding supplies while scrambling not to get left too far behind, and then finally to a reversal of all these considerations when mother and daughter are reunited and must make their (ultimately futile) escape. 

Later, when a grown Furiosa tries to escape Immortan Joe's stronghold for the first time, by stowing away on the war rig, she's caught in an attack and ends up having to join the rig's defenders. Which becomes, on the one hand, a sort of mini-Fury Road at the center of this movie, and on the other hand, a condensed, action-based coming of age arc, as Furiosa makes her way back and forth across the war rig—clinging to its undercarriage, scrambling across its top, seated in its driver's cabin, each time claiming more of it and becoming more herself. Then there are the places where the film determinedly turns away from the expected, nearly-clichéd imagery. When Furiosa and Jack are captured after a later escape attempt, they cling to each other before he's torn away and brutally killed. Any other director would have focused on the actors' faces, on the moment of shock and horror as Furiosa loses Jack forever. Here, the camera holds back—we never even see the moment of Jack's death. It's as if Miller is saying "you know what this is; you've seen it a million times before; why don't we all trust that you understand what this means to the characters, and get back to the stuff you can't get anywhere else?"

One reason that "George Miller is just that good" is a tempting answer is that studios hate it. No one wants execution-dependent projects. What studios want to hear is that if they plug this star, this IP, this director into a film, it'll be a guaranteed moneymaker. (And, in fairness, it must be acknowledged that being execution-dependent has not worked for Furiosa, which has been an—unearned, and to my mind baffling—box office disappointment. That's probably at least in part the fault of those same studios, who have trained audiences that any film that doesn't have one of those three draws, or a Barbenheimer-style marketing campaign to create FOMO, is something they can just wait to watch on streaming; but I still don't get why a follow-up to Fury Road didn't create that FOMO for so many people.) But perhaps because it is so tempting, we might also want to be a little suspicious of it. At the very least, it seems to me to boil down Furiosa to nothing but its action set-pieces. While this isn't exactly wrong—this is a movie that achieves most of its storytelling and character work through action—it is also a little reductive.

So let's talk about the choice that Furiosa makes that isn't action-based, and which might be the thing that most determines its success. The prequel concept raises an obvious question: who is Furiosa's enemy in this movie? It can't be Immortan Joe, because he isn't defeated until Fury Road, and in fact at the beginning of that movie Furiosa is his outwardly loyal henchwoman. For her prequel to establish him as its main villain and yet end with her as one of his generals would be a dark turn that it is hard to imagine this film shouldering. So there needs to be a different villain. But that just raises more difficulties. If this new villain is worse and more dangerous than Immortan Joe, that devalues the heroes' accomplishment in Fury Road. If he's less scary, that makes the entire movie around him feel less urgent. As I said at the beginning of this review, this entire concept simply shouldn't work.

Which is why I think Chris Hemsworth's Dementus is this movie's smartest choice, and perhaps even more than its impeccable action scenes, the thing that makes it a success. It's Dementus's henchmen who abduct Furiosa, and he's the one who kills her mother. Yet unlike Immortan Joe in either Fury Road or this movie, he is a character whose humanity, twisted as it is, is constantly on full display. He adopts Furiosa as half-mascot, half-daughter (and a substitute, he tells her, for his own dead children). He's a sensualist who loves new experiences, whether that's watching captured prisoners fight to the death for a chance to join his army, or being washed over with red dye from a misfired flare. He loves the sound of his own voice, especially when he's promising his people freedom and mastery of the Wasteland. Like Immortan Joe, he is a narcissist, willing to sacrifice anyone to his purposes, incapable of grasping that anyone else's pain is as real as his. But even at the most horrifying height of this narcissism he is faintly ridiculous—there's more than a little of Hemsworth's more humorous take on Thor, a similar childishness, here turned rancid. He does terrible things to Furiosa (as well as her mother, he's the one who kills Jack, and ends up costing her her arm), but as much as she hates him, we can't help but enjoy his presence onscreen. Not least because of all the movie's characters, he's the one who gets to emote, the one whose face—however deluded its expression of joy or injury—is allowed to fill the screen, in a way that Furiosa's or Jack's almost never is.

Rather than being a more or less scary villain than Immortan Joe, Dementus is sideways of him. The two end up in conflict, and then as wary allies after Dementus carves out his own parcel of the Wasteland (it is in the forging of this alliance that Furiosa changes hands between them and ends up in Immortan Joe's citadel, setting her on the path to driving the war rig). The film is constantly at pains to remind us that they are different flavors of awful, different types of narcissistic autocrats. Dementus doesn't possess Joe's hypnotic control over the War Boys, or his obsession with continuity that leads to the enslavement of the Wives. What he has instead is low cunning, a silver tongue, and a profound love of spectacle, all of which enable him to execute daring raids that win him territory—which he then lacks the intelligence, or attention span, to administer. It's relatively lightly handled, but there's a serious geopolitical conflict at the heart of Furiosa, to which its title character ends up being both an observer and a minor mover and shaker, fixated on her own survival and quest for revenge while the Wasteland is reshaped around her. 

Which leads me to the one thing about Furiosa that doesn't quite work, its ending. Or maybe that's putting it too harshly. The film's ending is yet another thrilling set-piece, as Furiosa tracks Dementus, his army now defeated by Joe's, across the desert in an echo of her mother's pursuit of her all those years ago. As an action sequence, it's no less satisfying than anything that came before it. As an emotional climax, it lacks something. We are, by this point, a little too invested in the conflict between Dementus and Immortan Joe to care very much about Furiosa's revenge against the latter (not helping matters is that we know Joe is worse, and the film is in fact a bit too silent on the significance of Furiosa's choice to help him cement his grip on the Wasteland). 

As Dementus himself says, there is nothing that Furiosa can do to him that will bring her satisfaction—read, bring the audience catharsis—because even the most elaborate and sadistic revenge will still leave her in an unsatisfying place, the henchwoman of an even more evil man, who has lost so many parts of herself that she is now a completely different person. In fact, it's notable how studiously the film avoids the obvious question: why doesn't Furiosa, after getting her revenge on Dementus, set out to do the thing she has been trying to do for most of the movie, and return to the green place? Why does she go back to Immortan Joe's citadel and remain there for anywhere between five or ten years, until she hatches the plan that sets off the events of Fury Road

A different, more character-based movie might have made this lacuna its point—by pursuing her revenge so blindly and monomaniacally, while ignoring the greater forces around her, Furiosa has lost the humanity that made her yearn to return home. You can read this interpretation into the film's ending, but you have to want to see it. The film as it's presented is more focused on a time skip to the beginning of Fury Road. Instead of leaning into the fact that the final, redemptive act of Furiosa's story is missing from its narrative, it chooses to end on a condensation of that act, trying to wring triumph out of a story that has already been told, without giving us the impetus for that act of redemption.

It's a testament to Miller's skills as a filmmaker that this empty space in no way impacts my awed admiration of this movie. Endings matter, a lot. A strong ending can make up for a weak, underwritten beginning and middle (Luca Guadagnino's Challengers is a good recent example of this phenomenon), but a wobbly ending can undermine all the good things that came before it. And yet somehow, not in the case of Furiosa. Perhaps, by the time the movie concedes that it doesn't know how to create catharsis out of a story that is missing its final act, we have been so overpowered by everything about it that did work—the expertly crafted action scenes, the unusual and compelling villain, the surprisingly complex geopolitics, the refusal to surrender to clichés and tropes—that this simply doesn't matter. Or perhaps what matters is that Furiosa is now herself, even if there are questions about her character that can't be answered (or whose answers, if they were honest ones, would make her look quite a bit worse than either of the movies she's in are willing to do). Either way, Furiosa works. When the credits roll, you are wrung out, exhilarated, and entirely satisfied.


szary said…
What made ending work for me was the voiceover - I feel like it put just enough distance between the audience and Furiosa, evoking that childlike wonder of listening to stories and fables from our elders. The effect was amplified by how the scene connecting confrontation with Demetrius to the final time skip was exactly that, a little snippet from History Man summing up that no one exactly know what happened later.

I already commented on that elsewhere, but I feel it even more now after your review - this is the most Miyazaki-ish movie from George Miller yet. Not only it cares less about lore constructs and fan wiki logic (not to be confused with internal logic and swiss watch precission of the script which is amazing when it comes down to individual small setups and payoffs) than ever before, it also feels like more of a dialog with audience - George Miller, just like Miyazaki in The Boy and The Heron, sitting down with his cinematic grandkids and trying to tell them a campfire story. I like how you described his restraint in showing PreJack's body - I feel that this, along with Demetrius final speech, is this Ghibli-s commentary from him on unnecessary violence and difference between its portrayal and indulgence.

Anyway, loved the movie. Tickled all the parts of my brain and heart that like to be tickled.

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