The first time I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I loved it. It has such a clean story, great action scenes (which, in contrast to Michael Bay’s movies or the Fast & Furious franchise, are impeccably paced and physically possible), and an admirable, alternative approach to its hero characters. This second viewing, with Bren, only deepened my appreciation. Few movies take this much advantage of the possibilities of visual storytelling.
Mad Max: Fury Road trusts us. We only get two character names in the brief pre-film credit roll, blared at us in a punk rock font:
TOM HARDY AS MAX ROCKATANSKY
CHARLIZE THERON AS IMPERATOR FURIOSA
Who is “Max Rockatansky”? I mean, I know. I saw the original three movies back when they were new (I was watching MTV the day Tina Turner’s video for “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack premiered, no big deal) but *Fury Road* doesn’t care if you’ve seen the originals, or if you think “Rockatansky” is a dumb name. Or if you know about “Imperators.” Before we can raise much objection from this assault of inscrutability, Max R. is surveying the post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. Max tells us in voice-over that he’s a “road warrior in search of a righteous cause.” No sooner has he driven off in search of said cause than he is captured by a bunch of white-painted guys. Who are they? What’s the cause?
*Mad Max: Fury Road* will not tell you. The movie contains all the information you need, and trusts you to catch it as it flies by.
We do catch what we need, because these white-painted dudes, and Max Whosatansky and Imperator Furiosa, and all the other weird characters have subtly unique signifiers and are photographed with enough space, even amidst thrilling action, to display their personality and motivation. (The white guys are War Boys.)
We think because of the title that Mad Max will be the main character. Yet the movie gives us many visual signals that he’s not so important. Throughout the first act, in which Max is captured, tortured, made to be a blood donor, and hoisted on the front of a speeding car, he’s shown from behind, or in quick cuts; throughout much of the first big action sequence, Max’s face is obscured by a huge metallic muzzle. In her introduction Furiosa is photographed center frame in the driver’s seat of her War Rig. With her prosthetic arm, shaved head and motor oil greased across her forehead, she is the personification of confidence, instantly the focus of the film. In fact, Max doesn’t lose his muzzle until well after Furiosa’s dominance has been established. Max is Furiosa’s dog.
Visual cues deepen other characters as well. Immortan Joe, the mutated warlord of the Citadel, where Max is imprisoned, manipulates his followers with fake visions of glory. Joe encases himself in translucent body armor that leaves his scars visible but which gives him a heroic dimension. He also uses a respirator affixed to his face by a monstrous breathing mask. In this get-up, Joe can appear to his followers as the embodiment of Strength Through Sickness. This is how Joe is able to make the War Boys believe they will go to “Valhalla” when they fight and die for him. Yet, when Joe discovers his brides have been smuggled out of the Citadel, he trots unsurely through hidden passageways, his body language saying, "who stole my toys?" Even the villain gets complexity.
I may have mentioned the warlord’s wives are gone? Furiosa did that. She has smuggled Immortal Joe's Five Wives from his cult-like desert compound, and is trying to take them to a mythic paradise called the Green Place. (The wives’ chamber, when their absence is discovered, is scrawled with defiant messages: WHO KILLED THE WORLD? And WE ARE NOT THINGS) Furiosa is taking a chance no one else in her world is willing to take: stand up to power, in order to make a better world for herself and other women.
The wives are the object of the movie, but only in a technical sense. In their first appearance, they are made to look like supermodels in a photo shoot, juxtaposed against the desolate landscape – this belies their personalities and individual arcs, which accumulate subtly and have real impact.
Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whitely of Transformers 3, and an actual supermodel) is the lead wife, and pregnant with Joe’s child. When she is suddenly run over in one of the key chases, I was shocked. Capable (Riley Keough) forms a girlfriend-boyfriend bond with the War Boy Nux, and I was glad to see them happy together amidst chaos. Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz) is the smartest of the group about survival and becomes an effective lieutenant to Furiosa. Ghostly-platinum blonde Dag (Abbey Lee) is the most observant and insightful, with an acerbic sense of humor that warms once she meets elderly badass Keeper of the Seeds later in the film. And Cheedo The Fragile (Courtney Eaton) lives up to her name as the weak link. She’s not up for revolution and wants to return to Immortan Joe. These characters need the help of Furiosa and Max, but They Are Not Things.
As Furiosa (most popular women’s Halloween costume for 2015, I’m sure) Charlize Theron calibrates perfectly between toughness and femininity. She doesn’t reach for badass moments, she is a badass.
Even though he is not really the main character, Tom Hardy gives a great, and legitimately “mad” performance. Max can’t control the visions from his past that scream into his consciousness, and Hardy uses his darting eyes and sparse muttered dialogue to convey a true hauntedness.
I’ve spent this review looking at the characters and visual dynamics of Fury Road, as if it weren’t the most expertly crafted action movie in years. These characters who are not things are not things amidst thrilling chases, not things when escaping marauders in rust-spiked dune buggies, not things when War Boys on pole vaults fly down and try to grab them, not things when they return to the Citadel, ready to take over. Each action sequence builds builds BUILDS and fades out in a classic Hollywood dissolve. And then fades up as the next character choice leads to the next action scene. Director George Miller is 70 years old, and he’s been trying to get Fury Road made for fifteen years. In all that time, he’s perfected his craft and widened his perspective. Miller created a world inhabited by more, different characters that can reach more, different people. Fury Road proves anyone’s story can be universal.