As you read these words, assuming you’re reading them on the day I post this review, it has been a little more than a week since I screened Mad Max: Fury Road. Between seeing the movie and writing about it – because gods forbid I want some time to chew on a movie as visually resplendent as Fury Road – I’ve seen the internet go through three discourse shifts on the film.
The first was, “Holy shit this is the most feminist action movie ever.”
The second was, “Check your privilege, Mad Max is still the product of the patriarchal movie industry, thus it’s the fruit of a poisonous tree and you are wrong to like it.”
The third was a reaction against the second. It generally boils down to Loki’s Paradox and defining feminism to either prove or disprove the value of a person’s view on feminism and Mad Max.
Why do I bring up this meta-narrative in something titled a review? Primarily to illustrate Fury Road’s evocative power. When was the last time an action movie generated this level of actual discussion? The collective reaction to Mad Max demonstrates exactly what movies are supposed to do: make us talk, argue, and (eventually) consider other opinions. This post-curtain dialogue is what action movies have been missing for ages.
It’s hard to tell where Fury Road fits into the Mad Max timeline. Instead of wading into the various fan theories and parsing every single visual clue within the film, I think it’s enough to say Fury Road is very much in dialogue with The Road Warrior. Much like The Road Warrior, Fury Road is a story about survival amid the end of the world. Unlike TRW, which explores survival as an almost black-and-white conflict between survivors clinging to civilization and the bandits who would tear them down, Fury Road leans more toward a visual study into the chaos and mythology of the apocalypse.
George Miller’s current masked “evil” demagogue is Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe is far from the image of physical strength we saw in The Great Humungus. This bloated and cancerous albino evokes the Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch’s Dune as a nearest visual comparison. He is a rotting body desperate to hold on to life and produce a healthy offspring.
Joe is emblematic of the decaying world in which the film is set. Likewise, Joe’s warboys, the fanatic and suicidal devotees of the religion Joe has built around huffing chrome paint, V8 engines, and glorious death, are all sickly beings. To these people, possessed of a “half-life”, Joe is the All Father, presiding over an impenetrable fortress of green space and fresh water. While the details connected to Joe’s mythological system are entirely visual, they nonetheless convey the truths of this world and our world; when life is miserable, people will turn to religion for its promise of a better world to come.
As for Max (Tom Hardy), the movie’s titular character, his function principally speaks to Fury Road’s desire to up-end the audience’s expectations of an action film. There’s little reason to believe Max (Tom Hardy) is the protagonist, let alone the point-of-view character in this movie. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) catalyzes the action when she uses Joe’s War Rig to lead the former’s wives from their gilded cage. Max only becomes involved in this story as a blood donor strapped to the grill of one of Joe’s pursuit vehicles. He is, quite literally, along for the ride.
Which brings us to Joe’s brides. Joe keeps his wives in a modified bank vault. The imagery combined with Joe’s reaction to their escape frames the women as property. Before the first act is done, the wives come into their own as individuals who have (mostly) rejected the system around them. Yet this transformation invites the audience to question if their and Furiosa’s motivations are truly righteous. The wives, and by extension, the audience, might be wholly naive to the world around them.
Everything within Joe’s dominion mobilizes living beings as components of a greater whole. It would be simplistic to assume he does this out of malice. However it’s obvious Joe’s actions are the consequences of a world both burned and broken. While the wives may be Joe’s possessions, they are also represent the best chance for making healthy humans amid the wretches of the wastes. Pair this with Joe’s role as patriarch of a religion that encourages suicide (i.e. thinning out the non-viable genetic material) and perhaps the seeming antagonist of this movie is a thesis on the brutal necessities required to keep humanity alive without the trappings of civilization.
This is the strength of Fury Road. In a world gone mad, it eschews the temptation to reduce humanity to the simplest possible components. There are no binaries of good and evil in Fury Road. All of the characters think themselves righteous. None are so one-dimensional as to be written off as maniacal supervillains or chronic do-gooders.
Likewise, the movie is neither a pro-feminist piece nor an anti-male manifesto. Fury Road is a visual story. Visual stories, be they a single painting or 216,000 frames of study into entropy and decay, are not meant to be sortied into simple dialectics. Rather, they are conversations waiting to happen. To understand Fury Road, a viewer must accept the first lesson of the wastes: one does not survive without compromise.
In sum, Fury Road is a gonzo and over-the-top testament to the power of physical sets, working props, visual storytelling, and contemporary mythmaking. Beyond all the high-octane explosions – which are many and glorious – is a richly developed and highly nuanced world. George Miller does a first rate job of showing everything about this world while telling the audience almost nothing. It is both a turn-off-your-brain action movie, and a deeply evocative piece of storytelling.
It is the type of action movie audiences sorely deserve.