Review – Mad Max Fury Road
One of the founding myths of cinema is a tale of the Lumiere Brothers’ screening of Arrival of the Train. The Lumiere Brothers played the 50 second film on their new invention, the Cinematograph, and as the train passed through the frame audience members fled in terror believing the locomotive was going to crash through the screen. You may find it hard to comprehend the purity of this reaction to cinema because we live in an age, over 100 year post-Arrival of the Train, where the wizardry of filmmaking has spoilt us to the point of desensitisation. Maybe this numbness will be noted in history books 100 years from now, and a new myth will be born of another vehicular themed film that hyped audiences and made them believe in the magic again. That film is Mad Max Fury Road.
In a post-apocalyptic world, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is chased down by the War Boys of the warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and taken prisoner. Max is used as a human ‘blood bag’ for a transfusion by one of Immortan Joe’s War Boys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), but when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) goes rogue with one of Immortan Joe’s trucks that is carrying precious cargo, Max is thrown into the chaos and must survive the onslaught of a deadly convoy.
It’s hard to define the purity of Mad Max Fury Road and the vision of co-writer and director George Miller (Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris are co-writers). Calling Miller a ‘director’ is too formal for a film of this magnitude; he’s more like an expert fever dream interpreter. Mad Max Fury Road is a chaotic vision of a pursuit across a desolate hellscape and Miller’s language is pure cinema. There’s little emphasis on dialogue and maximum focus on the circus of carnage, but it’s not just the exploding menagerie of vehicles where Miller settles; Mad Max Fury Road is where a look can slay or shatter your heart. It’s all enhanced by the Miller-isms: over-cranked shots so the footage is manically sped up; flipping cars that that obliterate the laws of physics; crazy performances from relatively unknown Australian actors; and a reckless Ozploitation aesthetic that enhances the danger. Even an Angus Young inspired electric guitar player that whips Immortan Joe’s convoy into a bloodthirsty frenzy feels completely normal in the context of Miller’s mad, mad world. There’s no trace of complacency either, as Miller manages to consistently outdo himself with each sequence to keep upping the stakes and reinvent the new standard of action cinema he just established in the previous scene. Miller can’t fully hide from one major blockbuster trapping though, and it’s the soft digital effect borders of Mad Max Fury Road that softens the hard edges despite the abundance of extraordinary practical effects and stunts.
If the phenomenal staging of Mad Max Fury is Miller showing his cinematic muscles, the story is where he slathers his optimistic, pulpy heart across his sleeve. We’re introduced to Max haunted by the people he has failed to save in a savage land, but there’s no time to dwell post-apocalypse, and he’s swiftly hunted down. Miller uses the opening scene to establish the frantic need to move in the Mad Max world: memories, thoughts and nostalgia get people killed. From the outset we get inside Max’s head and get clues to the answer of the primary question constantly dangling over the character’s head: why doesn’t he give up and accept death? The concept of a hard life and an easy death, even self-sacrifice and rebirth in the next life emphasised by the kamikaze ideals of the War Boys, are ideas constantly at play. The answer for Max ties in heavily to his role as a supporting character in the bigger picture of Mad Max Fury Road and the other three films in the series. Continuity has never mattered because these films are urban tales of peoples’ encounters with ‘The Road Warrior’, who is basically a life coach to the disparate souls he encounters. Max is a roughed-up vessel of hope and redemption, the latter being a prominent theme between Miller’s well-orchestrated car shaped fireballs. Hardy’s Max is John McLane meets Jacques Tati. Hardy doesn’t move low and slow with the swagger his modern action hero counterpart; he’s frantic, accident prone and completely disgruntled by the situation. There are slapstick elements of the performance blended with action lead grit to brilliantly harmonise with Miller’s visual narrative. Hardy overplays everything in the best possible way like the silent cinema stars of yesteryear. And all this for what’s essentially a side-character, Max is gateway to the true lead of Mad Max Fury Road, Imperator Furiosa.
Through Furiosa, Miller is able to unleash a powerful feminist platform which involves Furiosa assisting the escape of the wives (Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) of Immortan Joe. It subverts the classic tale of the knight rescuing the princess from the castle nicely. In a scene where Joe discovers they’ve escaped, he finds their plush cell covered with messages, one says ‘We are not things!’ Another note says ‘Then who killed the world?’ There’s a wonderful awakening that occurs for the female characters from inside Immortan Joe’s warped patriarchy, who not only question the male dominated status quo, but set about smashing it to pieces. Even the phallic symbolism of the cars, often said to be the extension of a man’s penis, are shredded by feminine fury and the driver’s seat of independence is reclaimed.
Miller burrows his politics into Mad Max Fury Road and it’s what allows the film to transcend just being an ‘action film’. Immortan Joe represents the elder white male always at the apex of power structures in society; the lawmaker who is always deciding what’s best for women and what they should do with their bodies; a relic whose political greed is responsible for killing the world – Miller takes heavy cues from Nevil Shute’s On The Beach and Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation when it comes to Earth’s poisoning. The War Boys are the second tier of Immortan Joe’s power structure and they’re representative of the misguided male Gamergaters and ‘men’s rights activists’ of our time following outdated beliefs. Keays-Byrne is perfectly grotesque as the villain along with his fellow elder powerbrokers, the gluttonous People Eater (John Howard, look out for the nipple rings) and the mad Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter, look out for the bullet teeth and a judge’s wig made of ammunition). Against these curmudgeons are Furiosa and the escapees who all embody the cry of the theme song to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, ‘females are strong as Hell!’ Miller’s genius in capturing the struggles of these women is that they’re all not all bland strong female character archetypes, what Dude-Bros constantly call ‘badasses’ that we see too much of in film and television. These women are tough but vulnerable. Theron does an incredible job or conveying the burden of her tough exterior in search of redemption and a chance at peace. Sure, all the ladies get their action moment, but it’s when Miller pulls back the camera on the diverse number of feminine faces, young and old, complex and beautiful, you begin to appreciate how rare a sight it is film. It’s a moment to savour and celebrate but Miller has one final trick up his sleeve.
Mad Max Fury Road is an exciting feminist doctrine but it evolves into a humanist piece of work as the symbiosis of Furiosia and Max’s relationship becomes clear. As Miller approaches the finale, the gender warfare falls aside for the closest thing possible to ‘the greater good’ when the world has fallen apart. Admittedly, the idea of ‘good’ in a hopeless place is questionable, but this is where Miller cranks his knockabout optimism up to 11. The character arc of Nux and his enlightenment about the ideals he fights for, and his eventual sacrifice, is further proof of how Miller shows there can be a spark in the darkness.
In all the exasperation of this review there is still so much to cover in Mad Max Fury Road. It’s a conversation that will hopefully continue for the next 100 years like the Lumiere Brothers’ little train movie, but this time Miller has sent an unstoppable, flaming, politically charged train hurtling toward the audience. Mad Max Fury Road is the reason why movies were invented.
The Popcorn Junkie