Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road is an astoundingly great action movie, a post-apocalyptic cartoon bleeding with sand, wind, fog, mud and mayhem. It’s also completely mental. George Miller has upped the ante so far beyond any other purveyor of action cinema out there, they may as well collectively up sticks and go home. His bold, brazen kinetics are perfectly matched by the most straightforward and linear of plotlines. As ever with Max, Fury Road concerns itself with his long slow road back to humanity, but it is at least as much about the similar quest for atonement of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa.
Tom Hardy’s incarnation of Max is much more aligned with the laconic Max of Road Warrior than the positively chipper (by comparison) chap of Beyond Thunderdome. But, stylistically and narratively, this really is a mash-up of those two previous entries, only on a vastly grander scale and displaying an ability to integrate the kind of elements that proved twee or undigestible in the latter. If the Fury Road Max is pre-Thunderdome – such as these things go in the series’ always loose fit connectivity – the post-nuclear holocaust world is a shared one (something that didn’t come up in Road Warrior, so was either yet to be or simply represented Miller reconfiguring his environment to suit the tale he wanted to tell).
Fury Road takes the punk-tribal posturing and iconography of Mad Max 2 and blends it with the exaggerated production design of Thunderdome, while lacing in that film’s evolved linguistic tics and fractured religiosity. Like Thunderdome, there is a central hub to all the sandblasted journeying. There it was Bartertown. Here, it’s the Citadel, the home of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) a masked monster with an army of followers; the white-painted War Boys.
Rude health is a rarity, with most afflicted by cancerous tumours (it may be appropriate that Miller has made this post-Fukishima, the nuclear threat at its most potent since the ’80s*, but now such an Armageddon is more creeping and insidious, one we hope will simply go away if we ignore it). To that end, Joe has procured five beautiful “wives” as vessels for his offspring. Or had, since former wife Furiosa (she couldn’t have children) has just made off with them. Joe and his followers are in hot pursuit, with the recently captured Max, branded and turned into a living blood bag, taken along for the ride (he has been pegged as a blood donor for sickly War Boy Nux, played Nicholas Hoult).
Fury Road is a prime example of pain-staking world building. This is a rich, vibrant, grotesque vision, one of primary colours and polar opposites. The landscape turns from yellow sands, to red/orange thunderstorms, blue-filtered mud flats and the mythical utopia of the Green Place. The latter is never reached, so must be reconfigured as the fertile environment nurtured in the Citadel.
One can feel Miller, over the ten years plus it has taken to bring this to the screen, has honed his treatment of content that translated in such a slipshod manner in Thunderdome. It helps also that he doesn’t stop for long enough to indulge his themes. This is big, bold, comic book stuff, appropriately so since Fury Road is a film of storyboards turned into images, rather than a concrete screenplay (the reason a nervous studio dispatched execs onto the ground to keep tabs on what Miller was doing; it wasn’t possible to keep track of progress in the “two pages were filmed today” tradition).
Immortan Joe’s War Boys worship steering wheels and speak their own patois; this totemic and vernacular degeneration is similar to the Lost Tribe of children in Thunderdome. They have their own excessive quirks and customs, most singularly highlighted by spray-painting their faces in preparation for their journey to Valhalla; martyrdom is to be venerated, as they are only a half-life army anyway (likely to die even earlier, if the state of Nux is any indication). Miller is completely assured of his tone, which is far from the sub-Spielberg meets Lucas adventuring of Beyond Thunderdome. Fury Road glories in its R-rating/15-certificate. Joe’s body is a hive of tumours talced and sealed in a plastic shell.
Large breasted women are plugged in like cows to produce milk on tap; as with human blood bags, life-giving flesh is the rarest and most valuable substance on the market. And water, of course; the starving, parched citizens who barely survive in the wasteland below Joe’s Citadel are kept in check by the periodic promise of aqua delivered by sluice (some of these strokes don’t bear much scrutiny; like, why wouldn’t an enterprising citizen, particularly an exhausted one, work out a better means of collecting this precious substance, rather than surging forward with a few barely sufficient pots and pans and cups?)
Appropriately to the engagement with all things auto, the cars themselves are ultra-fetishised, and the pursuit become a grand event set to its own rock concert soundtrack (with iOTA’s Doof Warrior on guitar and oversized drums-a-beating). This is in keeping with the previous pictures, only more so. Max’s V8 and familiar jacket are as essential as The Man with No Name’s poncho and hat; there’s even a call-back to Mad Max 2’s fizzling shotgun cartridges at a crucial moment.
Mythmaking isn’t quite so overtly intrinsic to Fury Road as it was to the previous two pictures, however. It isn’t another venerating their encounter with the Road Warrior who tells his latest story. Rather, Max introduces himself. Yet the common thread of far distant salvation, a mythical respite, recurs. The Green Place proves to be a chased rainbow. Implicitly, Miller course-corrects Thunderdome’s strange choice for a desirable outcome of forsaking a verdant oasis for a derelict city. In Fury Road, it is the “oasis” of the Citadel that is reconfigured under a new order.
There are elements here that, certainly from the trailers, looked as if they might have been as cheesily insipid as the Lost Tribe in Thunderdome. And, if Miller had been as indulgent as he was there, they might have been. Much has already been made of the strong feminist through line of Fury Road, to the extent that Max is, at best, sharing lead duties with Furiosa. The plot revolves around a malevolent patriarch attempting to regain and subjugate his baby-making harem (“We are not things”).
The first we see of them (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as The Splendid Angharad, Riley Keough as Capable, Zoë Kravitz as Toast the Knowing, Abbey Lee as The Dag and Courney Eaton as Cheedo the Fragile), they are objectified as untouchably sanctified and virtuous eye candy, washing themselves amid the sands. They are as absurdly perfect as the War Boys are freakish and malformed, and as such Miller delivers their presence as a punchline rather than lingering lustiness.
Miller’s subtext isn’t really that; it’s too undisguised to be other than text. Ugly brutish men have destroyed the world, corrupted and polluted it, and they won’t even rest when they have brought it to its knees. It’s a potent and redolent theme, but there’s a danger in tackling it in exactly the same heightened manner as almost everything else in the movie; it can seem rather thunderdomingly clumsy, using a hammer to crack a nut.
This is never more evident than when Furiosa returns to her home (the once Green Place) and… it’s a righteous matriarchy! Of course, it is! The sisters are diametrically opposed to everything that has been putting the world down. What’s more, they’re aging bad-asses. It’s all very well to attest how Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues) consulted on the picture but, if the plot devices are screamingly clunky, all that diligence is in danger of being forfeit.
This aspect is about as underplayed as the eco-parable of Happy Feet was but, as noted, very little of the movie as a whole is when it comes to thematic content. Consequently, it’s just as well there’s little expository dialogue; one gets the sense that Miller might have put his foot in it. He’s very good at the minimalism of character we saw in Mad Max 2, but less so when he veers into emotionally entreating territory. The shorthand between Max and Furiosa is tremendous, and there are strong moments handed to all his female characters (The Splendid Angharad and Megan Gale’s Valkyrie; Miller appears to have fixated on a Norse myth most overtly, but Angharad comes from the Welsh The Mabinogion).
I think it would be overstating things to ascribe a great deal of substance to these roles, though. The most interesting aspect of his centralising of female characters is the choices he makes along the way. Miller places older woman who can and do die right in there in the action during the final chase. He also doesn’t stint on the horror in the name of a happy ending. Angharad, “much loved one”, Joe’s favourite wife, ends up under the wheels of Joe’s pursuit vehicle, and a dead baby is subsequently removed from her womb. Furiosa is seeking redemption because she betrayed her instincts, going out and collecting wives for Joe.
Miller has forsaken the family-friendly tone of Thunderdome, which was never really a good fit for the character or content. Still, though, one can’t help but think moments such as the milk farmwomen opening the sluice for the parched at the end are rather obvious, resembling something from a scrappy ‘60s sci-fi parable and so begging to be mocked (and one might have seen it that way, as broad as his presentation of Immortan Joe, if Miller wasn’t presenting this aspect so seriously).
The main focus is on Furiosa, however, and her character is an unqualified success. Theron has dipped a toe in science-fiction waters on several occasions in the past, being the best thing in Aeon Flux and one of the best things about Prometheus (her character was more interesting than the ostensible lead, making her silly demise particularly irksome). As with Max, Furiosa doesn’t need to provide extensive detail about her life; Miller’s a sure enough director, able to rely on fine actors to concisely get across the beats he needs.
Furiosa’s more capable than Max, both in terms of skillset (the moment where Max defers to her superior marksmanship by giving her the last shot on a target he has missed twice – which she hits – is conveyed wonderfully in looks and gestures) and determination. Max doesn’t have a cause – he’s more of a heavily burdened Littlest Hobo – but Furiosa is wholly dedicated to hers. The theme of Furiosa’s guilt, a woman coerced into subjugating other women, makes it entirely appropriate that it is she who dispatches Joe.
Theron has been provided with a great look too, shorn locks and engine grease as improvised war paint, with a mechanical arm that barely hinders her dexterity. Furiosa doesn’t need to engage in posturing or pronouncements.
One of the most enjoyable elements is how Max wins her confidence; he’s instantly suspect as a male, but her appreciation of his capability where it counts leads to mutual respect; he doesn’t need to become an honorary sister (lest that sound like overstatement, just look at the neutering of the character when asked to become an honorary parent in Thunderdome). From this point they work as a perfect team, conveying mutual respect in looks and reactions rather than words, and not needing to spar or second-guess. It’s the character equivalent of the push-pull of Miller’s handling of the chase sequences, a well-oiled machine. But there’s no mistaking that she’s in charge.
So Max. As he was in Mad Max 2, he’s “a burnt-out desolate man, haunted by the demons of his past”, still learning to live again. He’s also the facilitator who reluctantly gets involved, rather than the classically modelled hero. He doesn’t have petrol to motivate him this time (his V8 is sequestered in the first scene, and it serves to reflects that the movie’s currency is no longer oil but commoditised humans).
Rather, the visions and voices of those he failed to save haunt and compel him. Most crucially, the abiding “demon” is also female; his daughter (in this version of Max, rather than Mad Max where he had a son; it’s a change that fits the myth in Miller’s mind) who comes to him at crucial moments; he doesn’t know how to exorcise these presences, and instinctively shields himself from them. So it’s the feminine influence causing him to put up his hand, which saves his face from taking the full force of an arrow.
Also as with Mad Max 2, this Max isn’t some kind of superman. He might not end up as bashed up as in that movie, but he is only so effective in any given moment. While we, as an audience, instinctively get behind him whenever he is in the spotlight, Miller plays some cute tricks that up his mythic quality without indulging it. His most classically heroic moment happens off screen, as he disappears into the dark to stop the pursuing Richard Carter’s Bullet Farmer (who has already been blinded by Furiosa but just wont give up). We see an explosion in the distance. Then Max reappears, covered in blood and carrying guns and ammunition, and a crucial steering wheel.
Hardy also spends most of the first hour in a muzzle, so we get used to him that way. Miller isn’t really so interested in the big bold brash character the title may suggest, and Hardy keeps his version low key. He’s very funny though, and clearly adept at physical comedy. Max him frantically attempts to file open his muzzle over the space of several minutes, until he finally succeeds. Hardy has more dialogue than Mel did in Road Warrior, but the humour is less whacky guy Max of Thunderdome. Seeing his V8 speed by, he opines that first they took his blood and now his car. Still strapped to the front of Nux’s car he yells “Watch my head” as arrows whizz by him.
Hardy employs the voice of a man unused to company, gravelled and strained. It’s as if the sound of it is unfamiliar to him. It’s an effective and unplaceable choice. I think he’s great here, and a worthy successor to Mel’s Road Warrior.
In that film Max had the plan foisted upon him, and discovered he was merely a decoy. In Thunderdome he didn’t even have a plan. In Fury Road, Max comes up with the solution, a very dangerous one, of taking the Citadel. He sees the answer because he has been out there longer than the others, and knows the limits and possibilities of this world (he tells Furiosa hope will send her mad, after she discovers the Green Place no longer exists and is intent on heading across the salt flats). If Mel wasn’t a persona non grata, his age would actually have worked in this story; it makes sense that this world’s Max would be an older and more grizzled figure in a world that has long since gone to pot, that he would be seasoned in its steady deterioration because he saw it first-hand.
I particularly liked the ending, where one moment it looks as if Max is on board the lift up to the Citadel, and the next minute Furiosa catches sight of him in the crowd. He leaves of his own accord, rather than as a result of trickery or a bid to give others time; his demons do not yet allow him to integrate himself or find closure, or any kind of life outside that of a solitary nomad.
Hugh Keays-Byrne is as larger than life, and just plain larger to boot, as he was as the Toecutter in Mad Max, an instantly iconic villain of the boo-hiss variety. There isn’t much more to say about him, other than his mask tops anything Lord Humungus could come up with by a safe distance.
Nicholas Hoult very nearly steals the film from under Hardy’s and Theron’s noses as Nux. His character goes from looking for a “lovely day” to die, to reconsidering his dedication to Joe when he fails in his mission (tripping and losing his gun after receiving Joe’s blessing is both a sad and funny moment). Nux, with his named tumours, garners the most sympathy of all the characters, and strikes up a touching friendship with Capable. He gets his wish to visit Valhalla, but rides there on the side of the angels.
Fury Road is a succession of chases, each a symphony that is treated distinctly and sublimely in and of itself. The first has Max all bound up, in pursuit of Furiosa’s Rig (featuring some very Cars that Ate Paris), leading to a most definitely CGI sand/thunderstorm (but one in keeping with the overall extreme vision of the picture). However, there are a couple of preludes to this; Max drives off in the first scene and is almost instantly ensnared by Joe’s men. In the Citadel, he makes a bid for freedom, where we encounter the first overt example of Miller’s manipulation of frame rates to accentuate the action.
He drops frames to speed up action, and it’s as distracting as the first time Spielberg used high shutter speeds in Saving Private Ryan (Miller may have also been using high shutter speeds in this scene, but it seemed more frenetic than the effect used in Ryan; hopefully Miller’s example won’t lead to a host of hopeless imitators, like Spielberg’s did). Perhaps this scene felt overtly manipulated because it was non-vehicular, as elsewhere his decisions appear entirely immersive (the other Maxs were also famous for under cranking, at a time its overt use was beginning to go out of favour, so Miller is falling in line with his own history).
Miller’s action is beautifully shot and edited; it’s always 100 percent clear what his going on, and the relative geography involved (even something as limited as the expanse of the Rig is clearly defined in terms of who is where and what can be found in and across its length). While the chases are the thing, there’s a quite dazzling fight between Max and Furiosa following the first chase, where the elements of Max chained to Nux, Nux himself, the five wives, two guns, and several bullets, all come into play successively and invigoratingly.
It’s enormously satisfying when action is handled this well; the virtuosity is so overwhelming, it makes one laugh with delight. Consequently, in a movie like this, the few moments of calm are actually well-earned. One needs a couple of minutes of downtime because the whole experience is so gripping, so tense, so adrenalised, in its edge-of-the-seat bliss.
The second chase, involving a biker gang with whom Furiosa was doing a deal, is more upbeat, jaunty even, thanks to the tone of Junkie XL’s score (which is quite, quite magnificent throughout), taking our protagonists through a canyon and ending in Angharad’s death. It’s a step-down after that in terms of frenetics, as the Rig is embedded in mud and tension derives from the desperate attempts to extract it as Bullet Farmer approaches (Joe’s caravan is constantly on the horizon in those scenes where it isn’t up close and personal; there’s a potent threat, imminent danger throughout).
Going back the way he came was Max’s tactic of choice in both Mad Max 2 and Beyond Thunderdome, so it should probably be no surprise that he employs it here. But as mentioned, it’s for narratively satisfying reasons. The third is the biggest of the chase sequences, and the bloodiest, and the giddiest (Max caught on rotating poles as he attempts to cross from vehicle to vehicle is extraordinarily charged and deliriously deranged). There’s symmetry too, not just in destination, but in fates. Max, through no particular intent on his part, spent the first part of the film saving Nux. Now he uses the same inserted tubes to give the stricken Furiosa a vital blood transfusion.
I would dearly love to see the next adventure of Max, dropping into someone else’s story as a slightly more than incidental character in his own series. It’s sort of how he works best; the only difference between his function here and in The Road Warrior is that he is sharing lead duties. The box office might suggest otherwise, though. Mad Max: Fury Road didn’t come cheap and, if the first weekend is an indicator, it may not merit a follow up, even though the critical response has been one of near universal acclaim.
Other pictures have experienced this “curse of online fandom” where the fever pitch anticipation of movie geeks has created a deceptive sense of how something will (or won’t) perform; Pacific Rim was the most notable recent example (another, Edge of Tomorrow, lacked pre-buzz but received the kind of accolades Fury Road has garnered, but could only convert that into so much box office). As in that case, an underwhelming US performance for Fury Road may be tempered by success internationally, but we’ll just have to see.
Either way, it can’t infringe upon what Mad Max: Fury Road has achieved but it would be nice if the recognition were more universal. Perhaps it’s just a case of a movie that is too strange, distinct, unusual, to truly catch fire (I doubt that it has much to do with the ancient history of the franchise; that didn’t impact TRON Legacy’s opening). Miller’s movie is a glorious, garish, propulsive feast, one you feel a glutton for indulging so greedily, relishing each successive moment of stylistic splendour. What a piece of work is Fury Road. What a lovely movie.
EDIT: Seeing this a second time, I don’t’ think the title quote’s actually in the movie (just the trailer), but I’ll have to wait for the Blu-ray release to be certain.
*Addendum 06/07/22: The caveat of “allegedly” is required, of course.