**Contains Some Mild & Vague Spoilers**
In full disclosure, I should probably tell you upfront that I loved this film, unequivocally, and cannot sing its praises enough. However, rest assured that in this review, I will not blindly or vaguely worship at its altar, nor insist you see the film without a reasoned argument why. I had a very visceral and cerebral responses to this film, but not only did I enjoy the storytelling and artistry, I am just as thrilled about what kind of impact and importance a film like this can/will have on the Hollywood landscape. In general, I enthusiastically endorse this film and encourage you all to see it, and here’s why…
One of the most striking things about Mad Max: Fury Road is the simplicity of the story. Although, I should probably clarify that by saying, “…the deceptive simplicity of the story.” There’s actually a lot more going on than meets the eye. The story begins sometime following a nuclear war, where a good majority of earth’s population died in an instant, and since then, the world has become a desert wasteland and civilization has collapsed. Global warming or other contributing factors have left a dry planet, with little to no resources and fossil fuels left. Max (Tom Hardy), a survivor, is captured by the War Boys, led by the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and taken to Joe’s Citadel. Designated a universal blood donor, Max is imprisoned and used as a “blood bag” for the sick War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Meanwhile, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives her armoured war rig to collect gasoline. When Furiosa drives off-route, Joe realizes that his five wives—women selected for breeding—are gone. Joe leads his army in pursuit of Furiosa, calling on the aid of nearby Gas Town and the Bullet Farm.
Nux joins the army with Max strapped to his car to continue supplying blood. A battle ensues between the rig and Joe’s forces. Furiosa drives into a sand storm, evading her pursuers, except Nux, who attempts to sacrifice himself to destroy the rig. Max escapes and restrains Nux, but the car is destroyed. After the storm, Max sees Furiosa repairing her rig with the wives: Angharad, Capable, Cheedo, Toast, and the Dag. Max steals the rig, but its kill switch disables the truck. Max reluctantly agrees to let Furiosa and the wives accompany him and Nux returns to Joe.
I will essentially stop there, so as not to give anything else away, but it’s such a seemingly thin and predictable plot, it wouldn’t really matter anyway. Max accompanies Furiosa and the young wives through various biker gang territory, and at times, must contend with rogue gangs, and Joe and the War Boys, still in hot pursuit. Needlesstosay, this movie has few moments of contemplative down time. There is almost continuous action through the entire film. According to the film’s director, George Miller, the film’s storyboard was made even before the screenplay. The reason behind that was because Miller envisioned the film as a continuous chase, with little dialogue and focusing on the visuals. The storyboard was made with the collaboration of five artists and had about 3,500 panels. Anyway, Max and the women are continually fighting off marauders, in one of the most impressive chase scenes and multi-vehicle action sequences ever made. Perhaps one of the most impressive facts about the movie is that over 80% of the effects seen in the film are real practical effects, stunts, make-up and sets. CGI was used sparingly mainly to enhance the Namibian landscape, remove stunt rigging and for Charlize Theron’s left hand which in the film is a prosthetic arm.
What you should know is that Furiosa is not blindly driving into the desert, but heading for a special destination…the place she was born, and lived as a young child until she was kidnapped and brought to the Citadel. A daughter of Mary Jabassa, she is one of the Vuvalini of Many Mothers. Her initiating Mother was Katie (or K.T.) Concannon. Her clan was Swaddle Dog. She was kidnapped at least 7000 days (around 20 years) from The Green Place before meeting the Vuvalini again. Presumably she was attacked and kidnapped along with her mother by Immortan Joe. Her mother died three days after the abduction. Understandably, her memory is hazy and vague, but she has fond memories of the place she calls ‘The Green Place.’ You can imagine that in a barren wasteland, where everything is the dull color of sand, the sight of color and vegetation must be like spotting an oasis across the hot sand. You only hope it’s not a mirage. Once she, Max, and the brides arrive, she is happy to find the women of her clan again, but they have grave news. Furiosa is distraught to learn that the swampland they passed through earlier in the rig was actually the Green Place, now inhospitable. The group agrees to ride motorbikes across the immense salt flats in the hope of finding somewhere to live. Max chooses to stay behind, but after seeing visions of his dead daughter, he persuades them to return to the Citadel, which has ample water and greenery that Joe keeps for himself, and trap Joe and his army in the bikers’ canyon.
As I said, there is very little downtime, and after a brief stop in the valley she mistook for the Green Place, she and the crew depart, in the hopes they can defeat Joe, and take back the Citadel. Remember, I warned you: there is not much to this plot. They just came through a harrowing trip down “Fury Road” to find sanctuary, and now they are rebuffed, and must turn back again and face almost certain death. It’s important to remember that these people live deplorable lives as slaves, blood banks, and breeding incubators for producing more loyal and savage warriors. Max has lost his wife and child, several years before, and is only going through the motions of living, when really he is fundamentally dead inside. These people have nothing to lose, and so their rash and inadvisable decisions don’t seem quite as dire as they would if it was you and me making them. Perhaps I failed to mention, but by this time, the faithful War Boy Nux has become enchanted with one of Joe’s brides, and has slowly come over to their side.
The group begins the journey back to the Citadel. They are attacked by Joe and Furiosa is gravely wounded. Without going into detail, another whole chase sequence ensues, and there are many thrilling moments. The battle does not look good for Max and Furiosa, but luck turns their way, while people switch cars and trucks, and fights take place in and outside moving vehicles, Through a series of events, Max, Furiosa, and the wives are able to escape in Joe’s car. Max transfuses his blood to Furiosa to help her survive her injuries.
(WARNING: ENDING SPOILER) Back at the Citadel, Joe’s citizens are surprisingly overjoyed at the sight of Joe’s corpse. Furiosa and the wives are raised up on a lift by the child War Boys, and shortly thereafter, the water Joe had withheld from his poor and destitute castoffs was finally released down upon the overjoyed and thirsty masses. As she is symbolically raised up, Max stays behind and on the ground. He and Furiosa share a glance before Max disappears into the crowd.
Meaning Without Words
Although almost unanimously praised by critics and audiences alike, there have been criticisms of the movie’s ostensibly flimsy plot and stingy character development. People were troubled by watching two hours of nearly non-stop action, with little in the way of plot development to guide them along. As much as we tell ourselves we love action movies, we still want to see dialogue and familiar humans forming realistic relationships on screen. We love the action and CGI of The Avengers, but that movie wouldn’t be half as good without the squabbling and one-upsmanship between Tony Stark and Cap, or the budding romance between Bruce/ Hulk and Black Widow. One of the refreshing plot points in The Avengers: Age of Ultron was actually being introduced to Hawkeye’s wife and kids, and seeing how normal and domestic a life he had outside The Avengers. We want to see our characters talk, share jokes, rib each other, profess love, brag, and all the other things us humans do. It makes their heroic acts of bravery and feats of strength look even more impressive, knowing that their like you and me without the cape.
Mad Max: Fury Road was never going to be that kind of film, heavy with exposition and rich in florid narrative. But I would argue that the plot is deceptively simple. There is far more happening than meets the eye, and what comes out of the mouth. Tom Hardy’s nearly dead eyes are the mirror that reflect the ghosts of his dead wife and young child, the last casualties of this post-apocalyptic hell that he actually cared about. His face is a rough hewn stone, at first cold and war-weary, but throughout the course of the film, his countenance changes and becomes slowly more expressive and invested in those around him. The looks between him and Furiosa tell a thousand stories, all more interesting than the last. They speak volumes of text, that would fill a thousand pages in a script. They don’t need words. They have both lost so much, and their broken and calloused bodies speak for them. Think of the actors in this film as grizzled and sedated silent film stars, like Chaplin’s mournful Little Tramp. Except unlike those stars of a bygone era, Miller purposefully robbed these characters of their voices, perhaps left speechless in the face of near utter annihilation. Remember, over two-thirds of the planet was decimated and wiped out by nuclear war, some in an instant, and some unlucky enough to linger on and die a slow death. In the years since this tragedy, all these people have known is death and barbarism. What are they even living for anymore? Those that survived are merely empty shells, desensitized to their own grotesque savagery. This is no longer a society governed by etiquette, values, laws, religion, science, the written word, language or even speech. This is a world where brute force and animal savagery are the currency they swap. This is Darwinian Barbarism, and survival of the cruelist. The strongest live to fight another day and take their place atop the highest ground, and the weak are made corpses or made slaves, and there is no in between. There is no value for human life. This is the apocalypse, and whatever strides we once made as a civilization are now erased, and mankind has been shaken to its core, and undergone de-evolution, returning once again to our primitive natures. Language is an ornamentation in a world of brute force, and this story would have been disingenuous and broken its own rules of the world had it pursued verbosity and a more robust dialogue.
A Singular Vision
The brilliance of the world Miller creates is that this story had to be writ large, but not told by conventional means. He actually chose form over content, and the form and structure of the narrative are far more important than the words they use. He catered his delivery of the story to what this post-apocalyptic world called for. He was devastatingly precise and consistent with the rules of this world, and he rarely broke them. This is a story that doesn’t look like much on a page. Apparently, it didn’t look like much to some of the actors and crew, out in the Namibian desert, as they battled intense heat and tedious scene setups and carefully choreographed action sequences. In a Cannes press conference for the movie, Tom Hardy apologized to George Miller for the reportedly complicated relationship between the star and the director during filming. He stated: “There was no way, I mean, I have to apologize to you because I got frustrated. There was no way George could have explained what he could see in the sand when we were out there. Because of the due diligence that was required to make everything safe and so simple, what I saw was a relentless barrage of complexities, simplified for this fairly linear story. I knew he was brilliant, but I didn’t know how brilliant until I saw it. So, my first reaction was ‘Oh my god, I owe George an apology for being so myopic.'” The brilliant visionary director, George Miller, had all the pieces in his head, but the cast and crew could perhaps only catch glimpses of the big picture he was creating. Needless to say, this film is a piece of art, and could not have been told by conventional means.
Who’s Story Is It?
This is a tricky question to ask, because an argument can be made for both Furiosa and Max. Miller has created a reluctant anti-hero in Max, who we naturally assume is our protagonist, since he is the title character. It’s not any use to compare the amount of lines each character has. Furiosa has significantly more lines than Max. This isn’t Hamlet. We can’t identify the protagonist based on their verbiage. In evaluating a Protagonist, it’s important to look at a few key elements. What character initiates the first step towards moving the action of the story forward? They would be responsible for launching what’s called the inciting incident. We could look at the beginning of the film, and hastily say it is Max because he is the first person we see, and he is trying to escape from the War Boys. He clearly has an objective (to escape and not get caught) and he clearly kickstarts the action by trying to outrun them. The problem is, on closer inspection, this action doesn’t really hold up, because it doesn’t have a great objective and a thu-line that connects with each subsequent action in the film. His escape from the War Boys is not going to be the story we see over the next two hours. Sure, it’s a peripheral and tangential subplot, but this story is greater than that.
So we must turn our attention to Furiosa. Whereas Max’s purpose and direction in the beginning was cloudy and vague (escape! where?), hers was always single-mindedly to escape her prison, save the tyrannical Immortan Joe’s five wives from their grim fate of breeding new War Boys, and find her way back to the idyllic Green Place, from her childhood. This movie could be considered some kind of a Dantesque or Kafkaesque road trip, since the main action of the movie was driving that rig to the Green Place in pursuit of a better life. That IS a superobjective, and Furiosa (and crew) faced lethal obstacles along the way, just as any protagonist must, and her character used a variety of tactics to achieve her goal, from recruiting Max and Nux, to flirtation to bribery to trust to eliciting pity to every form of violence, cunning, and deception she could. Hers is a very traditional character arc, as she initiated the action (veering off course while driving the rig), hiding the wives (part of the superobjective: get them to safety), and pursue the goal relentlessly, at grave personal risk to herself. Her goal was to return to her birthplace, the mythic promised land of her youth. It might as well be the story of Moses and Exodus. She is on a mission, and every other subplot in the movie pale in comparison to her imperative. When she arrives at Green Place, she is understandably distraught, but she solicits help and listens to Max’s plan to return to the Citadel. This is insanity. They just came from there. THOSE ARE HIGH STAKES, in a movie already filled with deadly decisions. She has nothing to lose, and everything to gain. This is her Manifest Destiny. I can’t come to any other conclusion than to declare that Charlize Theron is the indisputable protagonist of this movie. Throughout the film, Max has made half-decisions, and been relatively rudderless. He resisted their feminine wiles at first, but he slowly was melted by time and their earnest thirst for freedom. He succumbs to their humanity, and decides he has some unwritten obligation to help them. In this regard, Max becomes a strong candidate for protagonist, because he has a very steep trajectory, from hardened widow and emotional zombie to risking his life and allowing himself to feel again — no matter how minor. But we can’t escape the fact that Max is mostly acted upon, and his decisions are offshoots of Furiosa’s. He becomes her de facto body guard and confidant, and they share an unspoken connection throughout. In that regard, Max actually plays the archetypal friend role, like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, who goes so far as to fight and die in proxy for Romeo. Max makes Furiosa a better woman, and empowers her to achieve her ultimate objective: find HOME. Not only that, he literally saves her life, by giving her a blood transfusion, symbolically giving her his lifeblood, and ensuring she lives to transplant the idea of Green Place back to the Citadel, and bring new life where there hasn’t been for years. “Home” therefore, is wherever Furiosa brings it. Not accidentally, the very first thing she does when she returns to the Citadel, and goes up on the lift is to share the water, and a torrent of water pours down on the poor wretched souls beneath. This symbolic gesture of watering her garden and providing lifeblood of her own is not lost on me, and it goes a long way towards hinting at what kind of leader she’ll be. In a movie of heat and intense flame, she baptizes the desperate with water, a metaphorical absolution and promise of good things to come. The plot may read as that simple on the page, but it’s what’s in between the lines, and all the compelling artistic choices Miller made elsewhere in the film, which gives it depth and meaning. This is more than a screenplay and well-ploted story, and it’s certainly not an examples of realism, this is a moving painting, a performance piece, a steam-punk/S&M/metal fashion and art design, breathtaking cinematography, incredibly believable real special effects and fight sequences, expressive make-up design, a commentary on global warming and our inclination towards self-destruction, and a character study in body language, non-verbal communication, and the broken signals we send when we ourselves are broken, and can barely speak for ourselves. It is a study of endurance, and having the courage to take one more breath, and fight another day in the face of unthinkable cruelty and savagery. In the final assessment, what is it that makes these people go on? That shred of humanity left inside each of them, and the ability to sometimes recognize it in others. That connection….the human condition….is what makes all of us get out of bed and face our own uncertain days.
Mad Max: Fury Road is such a visually sumptuous movie with a sophisticated concept and stunning artistry, and should remind us all that an action film can be both a high-octane thrill ride AND a smart and creative work of art. Furthermore, truly visionary films like this remind us that a blockbuster movie can come in the shape of art, and can earn money at the box office. As artists and film goers, we need to stand behind brave and daring films like this, and insist that this isn’t the exception, but can be the rule. This film deserves to be seen by everyone, and is accessible enough to satisfy both the pure action movie fan and those with more cerebral and sophisticated tastes. All films should aspire to such high standards.