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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

The Purposeful Savagery of “Furiosa”

The biggest favor you can do for yourself prior to viewing “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is to let go of any expectation that this will be a regurgitation of the glorious mayhem that made the original an all-time classic. Don’t worry, though. The mayhem is coming. It’s there. You just have to wait a while and the film doesn’t exist to try and top what has already been accomplished. For true fans of George Miller’s work, this should come as no surprise, but because the new film takes us back directly to core characters and revisits certain ideas and settings as “Fury Road,” it’s understandable to salivate a little in anticipation of another big chase, only to be caught off guard when Miller delays it in favor of character-driven storytelling and more extensive plotting. Comparing these two films in terms of “which is better because it has more action” is not of interest to Miller. Readers of the wildly entertaining book “Blood, Sweat and Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road” will see that Miller’s vision for this project turned out to be exactly what he promised.

Okay, so now you have that expectation. It’s not “Fury Road,” but something else and maybe it’s something that has to be seen a couple times before it’s fully appreciated. There’s a lot to take in, even though it does tell a rather simple revenge story. We see Furiosa (beautifully played as a child by Alyla Browne) growing up in the Green Place with her family and clan, only to see it intruded upon by unknowns. She gets taken away to an enclave of typical biker nomads led by Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), who takes her hostage while trying to get out of her where this “Green Place”--a "place of abundance"-- is located. Eventually, her mother, who tries to rescue her, is killed, which sets in motion Furiosa’s long-term revenge tale. The first hour of the film is Furiosa as a child and how eventually, this group of evil-minded warriors make their way to the Citadel (yes, that Citadel from “Fury Road”) and their feeble plans to take it over. We know that eventually Furiosa is going to be a permanent resident at this Citadel and rescue a few of its inhabitants. 

I’m being vague on the details on purpose. There is a lot going on here and a three-paragraph plot synopsis now seems futile as I sit here typing away. It’s a lot to take in on first viewing and the more surprises, the better.

About an hour in, Furiosa is grown and played by Anya Taylor-Joy. At this leap in time, there is what may be the first version of the famous War Rig, this one even way more souped-up with astonishing gadgets and deadly surprises for anyone who tries to take it over. Its first drive in the desert will give viewers what they loved about the original. Miller’s craft hasn’t softened or lost its panache one bit. “Furiosa” remains an astonishing feat of action and invention and this first big set piece ranks up there with the best of “Fury Road.” 

So, I guess I just made the mistake of comparing the two films’ action scenes and their quality. It’s inevitable, I suppose, but hopefully “Furiosa” won’t be remembered in the same way Miller’s “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” has often been misunderstood. That film, like this one, came in on the heels of the classic “The Road Warrior,” so when viewers of “Thunderdome” came in expecting extended action sequences, one right after another, they had to adjust to something more methodically paced and imaginative. They still got a “Mad Max’ movie, just not the one they wanted. I, for one, got exactly what I wanted from both of these films. True to Miller’s form and his dedicated crew, “Furiosa” fills its screen with an astonishing collection of epic-sized landscapes, repurposed tools of invention and a rogues gallery of side characters and henchmen, all with named such as Organic Mechanic, The Octoboss and The History Man (Is this the same History Man who has a quote at the end of “Fury Road”?). There is always something amazing to look at with this film that has nothing to do with action. 

Like all of Miller’s films, it is also great fun to listen to. Miller is often lauded for his technical execution, attention to detail and unpredictable story beats, but rarely for his dialogue. What a shame. Miller’s characteristic and colorful turns of phrase are evident in almost every line. I should’ve written down some of the highlights, but one of the more distinctive choices Miller makes for the final confrontation between Furiosa and Dr. Dementus is to not make it entirely physical, but verbal and emotional, first and foremost. The result is a dialogue exchange, with Hemsworth making the most of his meaty and often comedic role, that makes the final act of revenge that much more poetic. While Dr. Dementus talks much about the balance between murder and revenge, the film itself has a narrative bookend that takes all “Mad Max” movies to the next level in terms of its verbal and visual poetry. In this savage world, balance remains possible, even if it takes well over a decade to achieve it. 

Miller was smart to give Furiosa a pseudo-love interest in the form of another Max-like driver named Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), who takes Furiosa under his wing midway through he film and confides in her that he once had a family as well and that her pursuit of the “place of abundance” tattooed on her wrist is a place worth fighting for, if it still exists. Her partnership with this man, as well as her own silence during much of the first half (a trait that has always been part of Max's mystique) makes her trust in Max later on even more believable and meaningful. Step back and consider the accomplishment here that one can spend a great deal of time thinking about the characters, their relationships and plights in a pair of films most noted for their carnage. 

This, of course, is in no small part due to the actors. As Furiosa, both Brown and Taylor-Joy convey the steely determination and authority that Charlize Theron brought to the role so many years ago, under far more duress during that particular production. Brown is not just brought in to establish Furiosa’s backstory before Taylor-Joy takes over. She gets fourth billing for a reason and her performance is among the best child performances of the last twenty years. Pay attention in the scene where she has to make a choice to either play along with Dr. Dementus’ story of her upbringing, or tell the truth to the main villain of “Fury Road,” Immortan Joe (played very effectively this time by Lachy Hulme). It’s the turning point in the narrative here and she carries it with ease, giving it great suspense. Her transformation in that first hour makes Taylor-Joy’s half of the story that much more credible and seamless as she becomes the Furiosa we know. It’s more than an imitation of Theron. It’s a logical evolution. 

It will be interesting to see how “Furiosa” and “Fury Road” play back-to-back if one were to watch this prequel first. Like many prequels to iconic films, “Furiosa” aligns its ending with what we already know. So, how will the character of Mad Max figure into the narrative now that we have a 148-minute prelude? The answer, of course, should be obvious. This was never Max’s story. It has always been Furiosa’s, just as Miller originally conceived this work.

“Furiosa,” while a prequel, is where the “Mad Max’ movies should “end,” with a vision of hope in this otherwise hopeless world. By zeroing on Australia in the film’s prologue, Miller adjoins these two epics with their roots Down Under and reminds us that, while everything we’ve been seeing in these films is steeped in fantasy, this is still our world we’re talking about here and there’s a reason each film opens with an establishing narrative about nuclear devastation. “We are the already dead,” one character says to another. But Miller’s vision is ultimately about being alive and surviving through our instinctual connections with one another in the face of unbridled savagery and greed.

Miller has achieved something I did not think could be possible: he has made “Fury Road” an even better, more richer movie now than it was before. “Furiosa” opens with a quote from the History Man. “Fury Road” ends with a quote from the History Man. Both quotes could be part of the same poem. “Furiosa” is the last verse in a decades-long poem that announced itself as a low-budget grindhouse chase epic in the late ‘70s, but has grown as a substantial statement about who we rescue during these deadly chases, why we save them and what that says about us and our undying humanity. Hope remains, whether you’re Max Rockatansky–cold, uninterested, untrusting–or one of the lowly denizens scurrying and rotting away in a cave full of maggots.

The question is, do you have what it takes to make your survival epic? “Epic” still comes easily to Miller, a filmmaker stubbornly opposed to repeating himself, and modern cinema is all the better for it.

Rating: ****

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