Angry and funny female avengers, enacting aspects of the infernal Roman Goddesses known as The Furies, inhabit the new hit female buddy film The Heat. As soon as Shannon Mullins, the undercover Boston policewoman brilliantly played by Melissa McCarthy, appears onscreen, three things are clear: Mullins is furious, seeking justice, and stopping at nothing to get it. (A.O. Scott in his dismissive New York Times review of The Heat takes note of Mullins' "fury.") The movie, written by Katie Dippold and directed by Paul Feig, tracks FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) in her transition from an unhappy Apollonian, solve-things-from-afar modus operandi, to becoming more like one of The Furies in Roman mythology.
The Furies are Roman underworld goddesses who seek retribution through violence. They correspond to The Erinyes in the Greek pantheon, and are known for tracking men and killing criminals who swear false oaths. The deities are also associated with dripping blood; they were born either from the blood drops from the castrated genitals of Uranus, dashed onto the earth goddess Ge, per Hesiod's Theogony; or they were the children of the goddess Night. Their eyes were notoriously red with blood. The Furies are chthonic -- older than Zeus. Initially their number was not determined. Later they became known as a trio: Alecto who represents persevering anger; Tisiphone, a blood avenger; and Megaera, the jealous one. These female deities are linked to curses: if a vow is broken or a terrible crime committed, the Furies will seek vengeance and achieve justice. They do not weigh the evidence or possible reasons for crime. They punish. Even gods fear them. They were often depicted in winged form, clothed as huntresses, carrying weapons: whips, sickles or torches.
In The Heat, Mullins embodies aspects of The Furies from the start; it's "by the book" Ashburn who transitions to becoming more "furious" as the film progresses, eventually coming into her true powers in Act Three. Both Ashburn and Mullins suffer from misogyny and sexism in their work environments: in the very first scene, Ashburn is shown as more competent than her male peers, but later is not granted a promotion because she isn't liked by her male peers. Her boss Hale (Demian Bichir) gives her a chance to prove herself in an important drug-related case in Boston, which forces Ashburn to join forces with the undercover Mullins -- who struggles to retain custody of her own collars in a Boston precinct, getting little support from her captain who fears her (Tom Wilson).
In the film, Mullins, as mentor, trains Ashburn in how to be a Fury: to feel the liberation of owning one's anger, and using it as a force for change. Even the title, The Heat, hints of an underworld environment. Mullins wears weapons, enjoys a shadowy social life in bars and keeps a fridge stocked with ammo and guns. Her romantic history is a series of one-night stands with men who want to keep seeing her, but whom she rejects. On the job in one underworld rave scene in Club Ekko, Mullins remakes Ashburn's wardrobe on the spot, teaching her how to fit in with the crowd in order to plant a bug on a suspect's phone. Even the blood associated with The Erinyes/The Furies is represented in the film. In a key sequence, Bullock's Ashburn gives a choking customer in a diner an emergency operation, which results in a tremendous amount of blood flow onscreen. In a later scene, Ashburn is repeatedly stabbed in the leg.
Mullins loves her family but put one of her own brothers in prison when he broke the law -- to the dismay of the clan. Mullins curses constantly; the concept of curses associating with The Furies is represented here in a postmodern twist as Ashburn learns to curse freely like Mullins as part of her character arc. Mullins is extremely physical; she hunts and collars men throughout the film, functioning as an action hero. Other physical feats, treated comically, include: scaling a fence, going through a car window, breaking a hand, and dropping a perp several floors onto his car. When Ashburn, portrayed expertly by Bullock, finally tells off a meeting room of mostly male agents who have not included her in the details of the final hunt, we see her transition to a Fury. She appears next dressed in combat gear, sealing the transition with a visual, as she and Mullins defy their bosses to seek true justice.
The last play in Aeschylus' trilogy of The Orestia is The Eumenides. In the final moments of the play, due to a deal struck by Athena, The Furies are honored by Athenian women and children in an official procession -- as goddesses rebranded with a new name: "The Gracious Ones" (or "The Venerable Ones"). Interestingly, aspects of this are echoed in final moments of The Heat in an awards ceremony.
The last act of the film has plot twists related to the drug bust that may not completely satisfy. But the final moments depict the unity of female empowerment and "sisterhood," as together Ashburn and Mullins succeeded and have become friends. The film reinforces the idea of women helping each other in a professional environment, but more than that, encourages us to recognize and embrace the liberating power of the Fury within.
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