Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024)

Over the course of the franchise that bears his name, ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky has been on something of a journey: from a cop who, after a gang murders his wife and child, speeds down a path of vengeance, breaking bad as the society around him breaks down, to a post-apocalyptic ‘warrior of the wasteland’ surviving alone and only reluctantly redeeming himself by re-embracing his long-repressed values of decency, community and self-sacrifice. Played by Mel Gibson in George Miller’s trilogy of Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior, 1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), the character made a belated return three decades later in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), where, played by Tom Hardy, he was really just along for the ride – less a protagonist hero than a passenger and ally in a women’s story of escape and revolution – with new character Furiosa (Charlize Theron) very much at the wheel. Now even the title of prequel Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga centres Furiosa while reducing Max merely to the subtitle – and even that is exaggerating his importance (no doubt for marketing reasons) in a spin-off film that pushes him right to the outer margins, less participating agent than momentary observer (and future comrade). 

Furiosa’s very name – a Latin feminine form for a word whose meaning is not unlike Max’s epithet – sounds (in English) like a comparative form of ‘furious’, inviting the viewer to compare and contrast Furiosa with her ‘mad’ male counterpart. She is first seen as a child (Alyla Browne) plucking peaches from a tree in an out-of-bounds part of the verdant sanctuary where she lives in a peaceful, progressive community – and the taking of this forbidden fruit will see her snatched from her Eden by intruding bikers, with her mother (Charlee Fraser) in determined pursuit. Furiosa will be forced by the bikers’ leader Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) to watch her captured mother be tortured and killed – but not before her mother has given her a peach stone and made her promise to return home. 

So begins Furiosa’s own bi-directional journey, spanning many years. On the one hand, she is a mostly mute loner driven, like the younger Max, by a desire to take revenge against her family’s murderers, while on the other, she hopes to find her way back to the Paradise of her childhood. Along this crooked way, Furiosa will spend time with the elderly, tattooed History Man (George Shevtsov) – a living encyclopedia who is also the film’s narrator – will be passed on as mere property in a dynastic deal between up-and-coming power-player Dementus and the Citadel’s ensconced, ailing leader Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), will avoid being raped by Immortan’s hulking son Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), will learn to engineer a war rig, and will be taught aggressive driving skills by the Max-like ally Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), who sees in her a warrior’s speed and skill, and a possible route to a better world. She will also, as she grows into adulthood, be played by Anya Taylor-Joy, in a largely pre-verbal rôle that allows the actor to seethe and simmer with indignant rage while also keeping her character’s secrets and concealing her complicated inner conflicts. Like its predecessors, this is a piece of maximalist moviemaking, but Taylor-Joy’s performance comes finely tuned.

The nomadic outsider Dementus, a sadistic nihilist and hilariously posturing dandy with populist leanings, strives to take over the whole of the Wasteland – first Gastown, then the Bullet Farm and finally the Citadel – yet is repeatedly thwarted in his ambitions not only by the vengeful Furiosa, but by his own lack of any leadership qualities beyond a foppish charisma and a Darwinian savagery. Played with flamboyant relish by Hemsworth, Dementus is a deeply flawed, which is to say interesting, character: vicious in his actions, yet motivated, just like Furiosa, by personal tragedy and lost to the kind of vain anger towards which Furiosa, in pursuing him, is also dangerously accelerating. Like the co-writer (with Nick Lathouris) and director Miller himself, Dementus is all too cognizant of the need for grandiose gestures and awesome spectacle to keep the people happy, and so keeps delivering one hell of a show. 

Furiosa may be relentless in her vendetta against Dementus, but it is precisely that quality in her which makes him regard her as his own daughter, and himself as her most important mentor, schooling her through harsh cruelty and suffering to become his “little Dementus”, a pupil in his own image. Dementus is a dead end, not unlike the diseased seed of Immortan Joe and his family – but Furiosa’s simultaneous backwards and forwards trajectory shows that even from the most toxic sands and barren clifftop rocks, a new garden can grow. It is a message which in the end is either literalised, or at least elevated (by the History Man) to metaphor and myth. Either way, this is an epic story – although an epic which entirely elides a forty-day war, and shrouds its ultimate act of vengeance in ambiguity. For here Furiosa embodies a newly emergent kind of hero(ine), and Miller adjusts his modes of mythopoeia accordingly, taking us not so much beyond Thunderdome as beyond the vengeance that kickstarted the whole series.

Told in five headed sections and spanning 15 years, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is both origin story and rite of passage, where a young girl becoming a woman, and where innocence is lost as experience is gained. Furiosa may inscribe the map to Paradise on her very skin, but she also loses it, and with it, both her route home and her very bearings (not so much geographical as moral) in this closed world of poisonous patriarchy. Anyone who has seen Mad Max: Fury Road already knows that Furiosa’s nostalgic long-term mission will lead her not to the idyll of childhood abundance so brutally snatched from her, but only to the sterile emptiness of more desert. The lesson here is that there can be no going back – although that message is deeply ironised by a film that is both a backward-looking prequel, and that revisits, while also reconfiguring, sequences and motifs from all the other Mad Max films (roaring V8 engines, gladiatorial fights, incredible chase sequences, mad stunts, an armoured transport rig under attack from all sides, even a person chained to a vehicle having to choose between self-amputation or death). 

These are all recognisable, not to mention thrilling, riffs on the franchise’s established tropes, but presented in different ways and from different perspectives – and those changes are key. For perhaps in all Furiosa’s ordeals and struggles in a men’s world that merely commodifies and instrumentalises women (and that often tries to speak for her), there are seeds being planted for a better future in which she can find her own voice, her own story to tell, and her own roundabout way home. Furiosa may be a bit like Max (and a bit like Praetorian Jack, and even a bit like Dementus), but in the end she is – and remains – most like her ‘magnificent’ mother, barreling down a parallel path, or a two-lane highway, where ultimately Max’s continued presence will become surplus to requirements. This is not really a Mad Max Saga at all, but rather a correction to Max’s aimless, meandering course through an ever-worsening universe of decline. Furiosa may choose to sever her only physical link to a past that is in any case receding – but she also has acquired the wherewithal to rebuild it. Accordingly a new kind of protagonist is forged in the Wasteland, and we all know exactly where this woman with a plan is headed.

strap: George Miller’s mid-franchise, post-apocalyptic prequel sets a young woman racing down parallel paths of revenge and reconstruction

@ Anton Bitel