illustration by Ben Turner

Iwonder how many people go into Furiosa knowing what happens to Furiosa. We know the character arc that follows George Miller’s desert new epic, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, in part because it’s a prequel and in part because he uses the credits to show us clips from Mad Max: Fury Road, his 2015 film that first introduced us to the character of Furiosa. In that film, the adult Furiosa (Charlize Theron) goes rogue, stealing the enslaved wives of one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) with the hopes of liberating them into her home—an edenic mix of flora and fauna hidden somewhere in the Wasteland of Australia known as “the Green Place.” Her journey takes her forward, backward, askew—she quite literally barrels into Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), who proves an invaluable member of her escape plan. 

These are events; this is all plot. Prequels inherently suffer from an inevitability problem. We know that the young Furiosa—played as a child by Alyla Browne and as a young adult by Anya Taylor-Joy—survives. We know that most characters who appear in Furiosa but not in Fury Road are probably dead, or soon to die. We know that characters who span the timeframe of both films survive. The suspense is missing. We know Furiosa is a character who has suffered greatly by the start of Fury Road—so what is to gain by watching this suffering play out in real time?

I spent much of Furiosa wondering why this film existed—less “who is this for?” and more “why is this here?” A cynical answer: for money, mostly, to cash in on the success of Fury Road with a movie that has just enough of a similar palette and tone to justify its own existence. A slightly less cynical answer: George Miller has a mind and vision unparalleled in modern blockbuster filmmaking, and if people are willing to give him the budget to show us things that look profoundly bizarre and thrilling, then why not let him flex a little? The answer that emerged over the course of my viewing, considering, and rewatching Fury Road was that of character, not of plot—Furiosa exists to show us how a drive for revenge can turn into a drive for redemption.

To be clear, there’s a lot that Furiosa has to be angry about. She was kidnapped from her home, her mother was murdered by the, well, demented Lord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth—more fun than scary, maybe to a fault). Then she’s sold to Immortan Joe (played in this new film by Lachy Hulme), whose dimwitted son Rictus (Nathan Jones) tries to attack her. Her friend/mentor/maybe-lover Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke—yay) offers reprieve in the face of this inhumanity, but soon, he too is gone. Furiosa’s story is one of immeasurable loss—of loved ones, of personhood, of freedom. She moves through the world with little language, in part because her silence is a survival tool, and in part because what is there to say? Her horrors know no words.

If Theron brought a steely stoicism to Furiosa, Taylor-Joy now brings a more manic and wounded depth to the character. These scars are fresh. These losses still hurt in the chill of the night. Taylor-Joy has always had a remarkable knack as a physical actor—the pools of her eyes know no bounds. Hidden behind make-up and shrouds and seven to one hundred layers of dirt, her eyes glower through the bars of a cage or the windshield of the War Rig. Anger fuels her, but this does not give her strength so much as it exposes her own weaknesses. She cannot see past that which has harmed her. 

Though Tom Hardy does not appear in Furiosa (we catch a glimpse of Max watching the action unfold), I thought long and often of another movie in which he does appear, one that is also about a fruitless quest for revenge: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. In that film—released the same year as Mad Max: Fury Road, and earning Hardy his first and only Oscar nomination—Hardy plays Fitzgerald, a racist trapper, who murders the son of the heroic Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and leaves Glass himself for dead after a bear attack. Glass spends the rest of the long and often tedious film trudging through the wilderness in search of Fitzgerald, eager to murder him. When the two face off in the wet snow of the film’s finale, Fitzgerald reminds Glass that revenge means nothing, fixes nothing. The revenge movie is a genre unto itself—John Wick, Kill Bill, Oldboy—in which suffering encourages more suffering and builds into an emptiness. 

There are undoubtedly stretches of Furiosa that have a similar feel to a cutscene in a video game—brief asides of static dialogue where the player can get up and go to the bathroom or grab another seltzer from the fridge. There are games that make an art of the cutscene (consider: Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding), but most are pretty run-of-the-mill. Your tolerance for Furiosa may depend on whether you think Miller is more Kojima than not. Do we really “need” to know the backstory behind the alliance between Immortan Joe and the Bullet Farmer and the People-Eater, or the disputed leadership of Gastown? What feels prescient and new in Furiosa’s imagining of its protagonist’s story is a fundamental philosophical change that the character endures, the pointlessness of her journey made emotional, not literal. Whereas Fury Road saw her moving away and then back to her starting point, the world a little softer, Furiosa sees her come to realize the fruitlessness of her revenge mission. She learns not only to fight, but to press on. 

That death begets more death need not be the only solution to pain and violence. Furiosa’s mission in Fury Road is a kind of a revenge against the Immortan’s inhumane treatment of his wives, sure, but a revenge that advocates against continued violence, one that promises liberation. When Furiosa stands at the end of her movie out in the desert with Dementus, she has the ability and option to torment him, torture him, or kill him in any number of ways she sees fit. There is a brief moment—staggering, unexpected—when Dementus collapses under the weight of blows to the face and suffers a seizure. Is he faking it? Is this real? The uncertainty is palpable; I held my breath. Were Dementus to drop dead of a natural(ish) cause, everything Furiosa fought for would be for naught. That’s the hinge of the film, where ire melts into impetus. Everyone is—or will be—dead. There is still time, perhaps, to act.