Thursday, May 30, 2024

Furiousa: a Mad Max Saga (George Miller, 2024)

Book of genesis

George Miller's Furiosa may bill itself as a 'Mad Max Saga' but don't be fooled: it's less an action epic than an origin fable, a myth made in the telling. Where Fury Road was a hurtling bristling juggernaut of armor and wheels smashing everything in its way, Furiosa is more like a decades-long odyssey, of a woman seeking revenge, her home, and finally herself.  

The film has the feel and resonance of a biblical tale and appropriately enough begins in Eden or one particular eden, the Green Place of Many Mothers, an oasis that has somehow survived the apocalypse: two girls Valkyrie (Dylan Adonis) and Furiosa (Alyla Browne) pick a peach and bite into it and immediately fall from innocence. Furiosa is abducted by bikers with her mother Mary (Charlee Fraser) in hot pursuit, the first of several high-velocity setpieces; if we ever wonder where Furiosa gets her badass energy from, wonder no further: Mary is a savage tiger mom, fleet on foot, relentless in pursuit, deadly with the sniper rifle: she picks off Furiosa's kidnappers like so many jackrabbits and would have recovered her daughter if the surviving biker hadn't ridden-- just in the nick of time-- into the bikers' base camp.

Miller raises the stakes dramatically with the introduction of the biker horde's leader Dementus (Chris Hemsworth)-- not so much Adolf Hitler as he is Adenoid Hynkel, a dictator so consumed by megalomania he pratfalls almost as often as he preens. O he's brutal-- in Miller's postapocalypse you can't be a ganglord otherwise-- but Hemsworth seems to channel Bruce Spence's Gyro Captain as he capers and clowns all around center stage in a bizarre reedy-resonant voice, a cross between Peter Sellers and The Mighty Thor. Like in Monty Python's "Biggus Dickus" sketch, you're tempted to laugh the same time you're in terrible mortal danger if you so much as giggle.

But Furiosa in the guise of Alyla is more than match with her porcelain gaze. Which maddens Dementus; he dances about yammering of his lost children and the saltiness of tears ("sorrow is more piquant, zesty"), trying to provoke a response from her; she gives none, a silent witness to his often sadistic shenanigans, and hence provokes him further. Same time she goads him however, he shapes her-- not just with the initial trauma of their meeting but later treating her as chattel, albeit valuable, to be sold to Immortan Joe, and later with imaginatively worded taunts even shaping the final form of her revenge on him. An odd relationship, one of the more perverse in recent pop culture: think the Batman and the Joker, the Doctor and the Master, Kirk and Khan-- one constantly seeking the attention and maybe even approval of the other, bringing out the worse in each other till some kind of apotheosis is reached. 

Enter a second relationship to complicate matters: Imperator Jack (Tom Burke, quietly terrific) who takes Furiosa (now Anya Taylor-Joy) under his wing and teaches her how to drive and wage a Road War (whatever that means). Jack shares Furiosa's understated temperament, and given his leather outfit and general squarely handsome features could be a stand-in for the absent Max (implied: he comes from the same police force Max once worked for); with his experience and mentor status you might say the figure imprints itself on Furiosa, so that she can't help but react when she meets the original years later. Quickie pop psychology, but it serves this pop artifact.

Jack does more than teach Furiosa fighting techniques, or prepare her for Max; he teaches-- or re-teaches-- what she may have forgotten from back in the Green Place: the value of companionship, or a camaraderie that expresses kindness and is still capable of making hard choices. Where Furiosa and Dementus share a folie a deux, Furiosa and Jack share something quieter and more fragile. Not sure what it is, perhaps an exchange of glances, or a strain of music in Tom Holkenborg's score, but you both root for the two and fear for their future. 

That's basically it. The film doesn't have the propulsive momentum of Fury Road nor I suspect was it meant to; action setpieces are tossed in to remind you of the kind of world Furiosa wanders in, and arguably the best of the lot is the extended sequence found in the chapter 'The Stowaway' with its flamethrowers, skiing parachutists, whirling spiked balls, and all, but there's a perfunctory air to the action, however superbly they may be choreographed and realized;* the real meat of the film is the figure of Furiosa posed on the hood of a roaring truck or walking out of a sandstorm or hanging from a crane by one chained and mutilated arm-- she's basically an action figure Miller poses against his fabulist landscapes, striking dramatic poses. The development we all wait for (and flinch in anticipation)-- when she finally loses that left arm-- is nicely realized, a startling moment that dramatizes what it cost her to break free.

*(Doesn't help that the action is even more heavily CGI'd than in Fury Road, thought to his credit Miller does mostly use digital to extend or help contextualize what already are eye-popping stunts, not just effects for effects' sake-- his ambition exceeded his reach, and I'd give him a nominal pass for that. On the other hand, would the budget have been so irrecoverably big if he had scaled down to strictly what's actually possible? The film is meant to ride on the strength of its storytelling (not just story but the way the story's told)-- did it need to try outdo the action in Fury Road?)

Not perhaps a lot to pin an entire movie on, much less one with a running time of two and a half hours, but Miller has this fascinating infuriating tendency to build his action films around some still silent figure, passive yet mysterious, able to draw your attention with a minimum of detail. Mel Gibson played that figure in the first three Max movies, Tom Hardy in the fourth, Taylor-Joy in this fifth; around them swirl vivid figures-- the Toecutter; Wez and Lord Humungus and The Feral Kid; Furiosa and Immortan Joe; Dementus and Imperator Jack-- their intense interest helping affix our own,  keeping us staring at the big screen. 

Helps that Taylor-Joy is such an arresting figure, both differing and resembling Charlize Theron's original with her long flowing hair, blackened forehead, preternaturally huge unblinking full-moon eyes. You can't help but suspect maybe she does rightly inhabit the role, at least as Miller conceived it, a cardboard figure that somehow still manages to be both elemental and unaccountable. Not perhaps the best film of the year-- I haven't been looking too hard, and what I've seen has mostly been disappointing-- but arguably one of the better ones. 

No comments: