The weirdest thing about Mad Max: Fury Road is how much sense it makes. Yes, there are colours, textures and designs with an ingenuity that few other films hint at, but everything that comes into frame during its beautifully frantic set pieces has a function that is immediately self-evident. Giant harpoons mean that the endlessly-moving war rig they’ve gouged can’t go as fast. An electric guitar that spurts fire is another thing to hide from in a face-off with mutant baddies. In a film structured like an infinite train-ride, with people clambering from death machine to death machine like they’re taking the stairs, these are parts of a largely-wordless action mechanism that feels like a great breath of fresh air in the current flock of mainstream cinema outings. Not just content with beating similar big-budget storytellers at their own game, George Miller effectively begs the question of where visual story-telling itself has been all these years.
The same gorgeous simplicity goes for its galaxy of colliding characters. Max (Tom Hardy) is a man with no allegiance to the living nor sympathy for the dead, and will take anyone’s life if it means keeping his own. Hence, when he’s stranded in the desert with a rebel warrior (Charlize Theron) and a group of rescued maidens, he cares much less for their right to live free of tyrant imprisoner Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) than about the fact that Joe’s vehicular legion is coming straight for them on the horizon. But first he has to detach from Nux, one of Immortan’s crazed worshippers (Nicholas Hoult), who is using him as a human blood-bag. He gets one of the maidens to do this at gunpoint, but she’s taking a while with the pliers because the blood tube and metal chain attached to his arm are both tough to crack. But wait, Furiosa’s not taking kindly to that so they’re now in a struggle, punching and pushing at each other. And ack, now she’s got the pistol that she’d stashed in the bumper of her war rig. But wait, Nux has the ammo. And so their exciting back-and-forth continues while Joe is still driving, driving, driving at them over that endless horizon.
Even this small off-road scuffle is shot by John Seale with delicately hurried motions, and the film comprises several of these small moments that charge every single character with conflicting agency. Even the smallest actions say plenty about where each character fits in this demented world created by George Miller and co. to a point where Max is barely even the main character. There isn’t a single one of them, good guy or bad, that’s placed in the figurative back seat of the action, so when someone makes a comeback in a scene, it never feels cheap and always makes for the most dizzying of entertainment.
Because the crew of Mad Max convey so much through the cinematic language rather than verbal dialogue, they are free to express backstory in a rich production design that demands a second viewing. The opening ten minutes alone challenge us to keep up, with wretched barbarians and perverted chop-shops zooming past in a framerate-enhanced clip as Max attempts an escape from the lair of pale skinhead monks that Nux comes from. Furious 7 pulled a similar trick in its fast-forwarded Jason Statham hospital escape, but Fury Road succeeds in making it feel like Max’s wide-awake nightmare rather than a runtime reducer. The nightmarish feel doesn’t go away either; whether it’s the women shut up in Immortan Joe’s private harem or the mutants that come slobbering for Max and the women’s blood (among which prolific Australian actors Angus Sampson and John Howard can be spotted) it never relents, making a world that feels rounded, in which throwaway gestures from the actors feel like a part of the tapestry. Across it all, production designer Colin Gibson creates a colour strip of prolonged sandy golds and bitter-cold blues that is crucial in allowing the most outlandish moments feel welcome in the broader push-and-pull of the plot trajectory. He makes coming back for a rewatch that much less of a second thought, although the magnificent stunt team probably do that tenfold.1
To cap this all off, there’s some great subversion of the typical narrative model here. One particular, late twist in Max and Furiosa’s journey makes the endgame that much more easy to follow, while still further upping the tension levels. Aiding in that is the increasing abundance of tough female roles, not just through Theron’s commanding performance as Furiosa but also in a group of desert warriors that they encounter in the second half. Seeing eleven on-screen women that aren’t either objectified or given nothing to do is tough for us to ignore, but what makes them so winning is how the film they’re in seems to ignore that fact itself. That’s not to say it completely dispenses with progressive credentials, but it doesn’t fixate on them either, as they shouldn’t in this post-apocalyptic setting. Their main priority, like Max, is to survive, and so their portrayal – realised through costume designs by Jenny Beavan and performances from the likes of Jennifer Hagan and Megan Gale – doesn’t ignore their feminity but doesn’t exploit it like Immortan Joe would either. They’re wasteland warriors as strong as any of the men pursuing them, with equally formidable names like The Valkyrie and Keeper of the Seeds and, most gratifyingly, the smart ending makes it clear that they are not immune to the same insidious problems affecting anyone in power.
It’s not that a revelation about power emerges from the incredible details and lines of action, but that the cycles that create it make themselves vividly real again. While The Avengers: Age of Ultron is ruminating on the subject through snappy dialogue that reads well, Fury Road is casting light on it with the most primal of movements.2 The whole film is charting a revolution, with one rogue element in a huge machine supplanting its operator, and Tom Hardy makes sure to cap his singular, pained performance with a great representation of where he will fit in the new order. It’d be foolishly optimistic to expect a similar revolt in American blockbusters after this, but Miller’s spectacle inspires such confidence as to literally cry “fool!”, and it’s a very hard feeling to shake.
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