' ' Cinema Romantico: Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

Monday, June 10, 2024

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

As the fifth movie in director George Miller’s 45-year-old “Mad Max” series, “Furiosa” functions as a prequel to the preceding “Fury Road” (2015) by showing how its protagonist, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), reached the point of that film’s inciting incident. It’s an audacious, if not dangerous, game that Miller is playing. He is not only forcing himself to slalom between required story points, imposing artificial limits on storytelling imagination, but that in making a movie of Imperator Furiosa’s backstory, he is essentially competing against the imaginations of the audience. Like “Solo: A Star Wars” story could never hope to convey the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs as electrically as we had already seen it in our dreams, there is no way Furiosa losing her arm could be rendered to satisfy our preconceived imagery, right? Well...

“Furiosa” begins in The Green Place, a striking contrast to the surrounding unfertile wasteland. It is a paradise, but it is a paradise lost as the youthful eponymous character (Alyla Browne) ventures too far to pick a peach and is snatched by a pair of bikers seeking to present her as a prize to their vainglorious leader, Doctor Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). It won’t be that easy, though, and Furiosa’s mother Mary (Charlee Fraser) goes after her, a magnificent, curtain-raising stop and start chase across the desert in which the overmatched bikers confront the limitless intensity of the maternal instinct. Though she reaches her daughter, she can’t quite save her, nor herself, triggering a quest for vengeance similar to the first “Mad Max” but with a feminine bent.

Eschewing the saga’s typical spare, straight-forward storytelling style, “Furiosa” skews more novelistic, evoked in its chapter headings, and how it spends considerable time on the budding war between Dementus and Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), the warlord of “Fury Road.” Furiosa winds up in both their possessions at different times, and the camera always remains cognizant of her, innately reminding us that she remains the nexus of this story amid so much male jockeying. Eventually, she escapes and “Furiosa” flashes ahead 15 years, breathlessly recounted in a time lapse of a tree branch that hearkens back to the beginning and foreshadows the ending. (Anya Taylor-Joy also assumes the lead role.) She joins Immortan Joe’s army by posing as a mute boy, a wry twist on the Mulan legend in which she deceives to save her own life, and then falls in with the war rig crew of the Max stand-in Praetorian Joe (Tom Burke) as she hones the necessary skills to complete her quest.

There are moments during all this palace intrigue when “Furiosa” assumes the air of something closer to a sword and sandals epic; Dementus even seems to have emerged from one. Illustrating how Miller continues to lack for no inventiveness where modes of locomotion are concerned, he sends Dementus parading around the desert in a chariot led by motorcycles. (Dementus is also costumed for a while in a vest striking a dirty, wannabe Napoleon aesthetic.) The character, though, is never so grand, played by Hemsworth as a virtual parody of an alpha male, Uday Hussein-like, a psychopath and a dum dum who thinks of himself as bigger than life and blames everything on everybody else.

Dementus’s bluster is a useful juxtaposition against Furiosa’s preternatural self-possession, evinced as ably by Alyla Browne as the young Furiosa as it is by Anya Taylor-Joy as the older version. Taylor-Joy’s big, bright white eyes have always been ready and waiting for a movie director to truly harness their power and Miller is him, epitomizing the movie screen as a canvas for the human face as much as anything else, continually locking in on Taylor-Joy’s with straight-ahead shots blurring the pesky fourth wall by ineffably opening up a line directly between us and her. What Taylor-Joy’s turn lacks in the depth of Theron’s, it more than makes up for in a fathomless primal urge. 

Despite the occasional narrative meandering, action remains paramount, the great scene that opens it, the great one culminating it, and the showstopper taking place right in the middle when Furiosa stows away beneath Praetorian Joe’s gas tanker making the death-defying journey across Fury Road. Stowaway to Nowhere, this chapter is called, and as attackers swoop in and Joe’s crew drops like flies all around him, Furiosa is the rock that doesn’t roll in daringly making her way from beneath the war rig to the front seat, graduating from survivor to warrior. There is even more CGI creep here than “Fury Road,” but the composition remains first rate, the sequence as easy to understand as it is overpowering while the non-verbal communication between Furiosa and Joe registers every changing emotion. When the sequence suddenly ends and goes quiet, it takes a moment to gather yourself, as if you are Wile E. Coyote pulling yourself out from the under anvil that just went splat right on top of you. 

If initially Joe prevents Furiosa’s chance to hijack the tanker and point it toward The Green Place, his presence and their subsequent relationship becomes a bulwark against the vastness and loneliness of this world. And that relationship becomes a rejection of the creeping nihilism in a post-apocalyptic world. That is even truer in the denouement. When Furiosa finally confronts Dementus, it is an action scene transmogrified as a primal roar – and I mean that, a roar, the earthshaking sound design a manifestation of the observation that Furiosa is “the fifth rider of the apocalypse.” After this buildup, though, when Furiosa finally gets her say with Dementus, there is, at least for a while, a dog that caught the car sensation in so much as the elongated nature of the sequence seems to suggest that “Furiosa” itself doesn’t quite know what to do now. But that’s not true. It’s more like Furiosa herself doesn’t quite know what to do, suddenly confronted with something existential rather than emotional, and unexpectedly pointing a way toward life rather than death.

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