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Dementus’s Color-Changing Cape Is the Key to Understanding Furiosa

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Photo: Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.

The first time we see Dementus in Furiosa, it’s not Chris Hemsworth’s prosthetic nose or the sway he holds over a nomadic gang of postapocalyptic bikers that’s worth paying special attention to. He’s wrapped himself in a white cape — a crisp, clean white that you don’t tend to see much of out there in Mad Max’s dusty, desolate wasteland. Don’t let his pure, virginal starting colors fool you, though. Dementus is a true villain, one of the best new baddies to grace the big screen in several years. Comical and complex in equal measure, Dementus has a clear arc throughout Furiosa, one that sees his cape change colors as he descends into further villainy and as Furiosa rises to become the rarest of things in Mad Max’s world: a true hero.

It’s a testament to how abhorrent Fury Road villain Immortan Joe was that Dementus, who has the benefit of Hemsworth’s charisma and some of his handsomeness, initially seems like a better alternative, if forced to choose between Wasteland warlords. He is responsible for killing Furiosa’s mother, yet he initially offers a twisted take on paternalism to the captive Furiosa as a little girl. When Dementus’s men bring Furiosa (played at a young age by Alyla Browne) to his tent, he asks that they show his prisoner hospitality, and he eventually gives her a teddy bear that once belonged to a member of his own family. He’s lost people, too. And he’s trying to become what passes for educated in the Wasteland, listening to his tattooed History Man’s lessons. Furiosa doesn’t want you to have sympathy for Dementus, exactly, but he’s certainly a more nuanced villain than Immortan Joe’s skull-faced tyrant who hoards water and has a vault full of sex slaves.

When Dementus rides with his biker horde into the middle of Immortan Joe’s headquarters at the Citadel and declares war, you’re almost rooting for him. At this point, he seems like the lesser of two evils, and he delivers a big populist speech in which he promises the Citadel’s impoverished masses that he’ll share the wealth and rule with them, freeing them from Immortan Joe’s cruelty. Then death-crazed War Boys start raining down on him, slaughtering his horde and forcing him to retreat. Whatever complicated potential Dementus had to be a worthy leader in a trying world evaporates right then, as soon as he’s confronted with the reality of war. It’s why, in the moments before Dementus arrives at the Citadel, his cape gets its first change of colors. When one of his men fires a flare at the ground at point-blank range, Dementus is enveloped in red smoke, which dyes his cloak red. It’s a crimson foreshadowing of the blood that’s about to be spilled — and not just in his battle with Immortan Joe, but by his own hand in a cruelly pragmatic betrayal.

Bested at the Citadel, Dementus sets his sights on Gastown, another settlement in the Wasteland. He commandeers a War Rig and sends his own bikers in feigned pursuit of the vehicle, intending to use it as a Trojan Horse to get inside Gastown’s gates. But when the ruse fails to trick Gastown’s overseer, Dementus doesn’t hesitate to make the attack look real, killing his own men on the War Rig so that Gastown will believe their truck really is in danger, forcing them to open their gates. Dementus’s callous betrayal of his followers instantly causes him to lose the respect of one of his lieutenants, who will later defect. And when he later negotiates the terms of his control of Gastown with Immortan Joe, he gives up Furiosa as part of the deal, though only moments before he’d been treating her as a daughter figure. If Dementus represented the Wasteland’s equivalent of an enlightened leader, he still proved quick to sacrifice the people who trusted him (and his own principles) just for an edge in a war he started. Any fleeting claim Dementus had to his white cape is gone.

By the time we check back in with Dementus after a time skip (long enough for Furiosa to now be played by Anya Taylor-Joy), his cape is now tricolor. At the very base, it’s still somewhat white, a reminder of where he started. The middle is the red of his bloody conquest, and the top, around his shoulders, has been stained a dirty black. Presumably, this is from years of living and working among Gastown’s oil rigs, but it’s also reflective of the state of his soul. Dementus doesn’t have what it takes to lead and is scrambling. If he ever meant a word of his speech about sharing power, those ambitions have disappeared. Ruling is hard, it turns out, and Dementus’s new subjects are starving. When he begins an outright war with the Citadel and the Bullet Farm (the third settlement in this trading triangle), he begins sacrificing his men left and right in desperate maneuvers. At one point, he uses some of them as human shields when avoiding Furiosa’s attempt to snipe him.

Dementus finally sheds his Technicolor nightmare coat ahead of his final confrontation with Furiosa, having given it to his most loyal crony, Smeg (David Collins), in the hopes of using him as a decoy. The trick only briefly works before Furiosa kills Smeg and manages to capture Dementus. By now, Furiosa’s desire for revenge against the person responsible for her mother’s death has hardened into something even fiercer because Dementus tortured and killed her only friend, Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), and she’s down an arm thanks to him, too.

At first, Dementus doesn’t even recognize Furiosa, the girl whose life he ruined and whom he once called “Little D” as though she were his child. It’s only when she picks up the teddy bear he’d long ago given her to hold — a toy that once belonged to his child — that it all clicks. He explains to Furiosa that he, too, was driven by the same sort of revenge rooted in loss and grief. It’s a “We’re not so different, you and I” speech that not only doesn’t feel like a tired trope, because Furiosa did the work to get us to this point, but is essential to understanding Furiosa as a character, and by extension the movie as a whole.

Charitably, the white-caped Dementus from the beginning of the movie was a man who had recovered from tremendous loss and built a newfound family. This being the Wasteland, it was a grotesque nomadic biker horde, but you work with what you’ve got. As he explains to Furiosa, his desire for vengeance was never sated. He kept grasping to fill the void and only found emptiness. Revenge and power don’t make you a better or happier person; they’re a darkness that stains your character just the same way his cape turned black. Combine this with the horrors and pressures of the Wasteland, which pushes anyone unfortunate enough to live in it onto a path of brutal self-interest, and we might think that what happened to Dementus was inevitable. The white cape was a mirage.

Furiosa seems to understand this about her onetime unwanted father figure — and learns from it. She of course gets her gruesome revenge against Dementus by turning him into living fertilizer for the peach-tree seed she’s been carrying with her all these years, but she doesn’t let herself become him. It takes special intentionality not to let the Wasteland curdle your morality, and Furiosa has seen what Dementus’s attempt to replace his desire for vengeance with power has wrought. So, instead of setting her sights on destruction or even fleeing to the paradise of her childhood home, Furiosa devotes herself to freeing women from Immortan Joe’s tyranny, as seen in the Fury Road scenes we revisit at the end of this film. Her metaphorical white cape never turns black. Dementus’s fate doesn’t just help shape Furiosa into the heroine she becomes; it makes what she does in Fury Road a miracle.

More From This Series

  • Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’s Fantastically Demented Ending, Explained
  • Why Praetorian Jack’s Furiosa Romance ‘Worried’ Tom Burke
  • 20 Movies We Can’t Wait to See This Summer

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James Grebey , 2024-05-25 14:00:07

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