George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is the potent, powerful tonic we never knew we needed. The fourth installment in his Mad Max franchise is an overwhelming reminder of the unique places blockbuster filmmaking can go if we take off the shackles and let it run wild to places that can be magnificent even though they might also be rancid, putrid, and disgusting. The film’s post-apocalyptic wasteland is a marvel to behold and festers inside one of the best action films we’ve seen in decades. Miller not only creates one of cinema’s all-time best chases, but he goes a step further to transform the story into a celebration of feminism striking back against patriarchy. It may be a patriarchy riddled with gout and wielding chainsaws, but no blockbuster has delivered its message with such verve and bravado.
Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) was a cop before the world fell apart from nuclear war and ripped asunder by the need for water and fuel. Trying to live alone in the wasteland, Max is captured by war boys, a group of young, pasty, dark-eyed men who blindly follow the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has power only because he controls water and food. Meanwhile, Joe’s lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) pretends like she’s making a trip to Gas Town on behalf of the demented leader, but instead had gone rogue to protect The Wives—five young women who are used by Joe for the purposes of breeding. When Joe discovers Furiosa has betrayed him, he sends out his war boys, which include Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who drags Max along because he needs the Road Warrior’s universal blood type. Eventually, Max and Furiosa’s paths collide and they must drive to the safety of “The Green Place”.
Fury Road never apologizes for being weird. It never winks at the camera. No one questions names like “Gas Town”. The only way to live in the broken world presented by Mad Max is to never question it. Miller doesn’t want to turn off our brains or shock us into submission. He wants us to jump into a grimy, filthy pit that’s endlessly fascinating. In the world of Mad Max, everything—including and especially human beings—is a resource, and while Miller maintains the essence of his previous Mad Max films (not an easy task considering their vast differences), he paints his richest picture on the biggest canvas. The film’s designs are consistently grotesque but also absolutely breathtaking. The movie is beautiful in its ugliness. Miller fills his movie with freaks and rejects who now rule the world, and shows that this is a setting that has truly gone “mad”.
That insanity extends to the action. The film is one long chase scene. We get a brief appetizer as Max tries to escape from prison on foot, but the real pursuit begins with Furiosa goes on the run. From there, the movie rarely takes a moment to breathe as Max, Furiosa, and their passengers try to fend off rampaging hoards of bandits.
Miller’s film is a standout in the genre not only because the set pieces are terrifically designed, but also because they have weight. CGI is a marvelous tool, but it’s become the only tool current blockbusters employ to get thrills from the audience. There’s still some CGI in Mad Max, but it’s used mainly to provide texture to the environment such as crowds and putting Joe’s insignia on the side of a mountain. When it comes to the action, the movie is hardcore, explosive, gleeful destruction as a unique assortment of vehicles comes bearing down on Furiosa’s war rig. Fury Road demands to be seen on the biggest screen and with the loudest speakers.
Despite the assault of action mayhem, the movie never becomes prideful, and maintains an offbeat sense of humor that goes beyond cartoonish violence. Miller manages to wrap the film’s strangeness in its visuals. For example, the muzzle Max is forced to wear also represents the guilt he feels over the people he couldn’t save. If Max refuses to do anything other than “survive”, he may as well be a desperate hood ornament on Nux’s car. It’s not until he chooses to live for others that he becomes more than a muzzled blood bank. This thematic richness pushes Mad Max beyond a visual feast and into a film that’s surprisingly thoughtful without being smug or condescending.
It’s not Miller’s fault that so many other action films have no desire to deliver more than a couple hours of loud noises and bright lights. Many people like blockbusters because they’re not challenging, and if you don’t want to engage Mad Max’s themes, you can still enjoy the picture. But those who embrace the film’s subtext will leave with a far more fulfilling experience.
More than once, the question arises, “Who killed the world?” and so if the world is dead, then what remains is a rotting carcass. Survival is all that matters, and with the world’s resources almost gone, people become resources. The war boys only keep Max alive because he’s a universal donor (we don’t know how they discover this, but it doesn’t really matter), and Joe only uses the war boys because they’re cannon fodder. The position of the Wives is even clearer, and when Joe discovers their empty prison, he finds the message “We are not things.”
The filmmaker takes a brilliant approach to feminism by expanding it beyond “tough chicks are cool.” Too often, a strong woman in movies and television is one solely defined by her ability to inflict violence. Mad Max goes further in its depiction of women. Theron is terrific as Furiosa, not just because she’s physically formidable and gives a commanding performance. Underneath her tough exterior, Theron conveys Furiosa’s guilt without the need for exposition. We know she’s looking for redemption because she’s done Joe’s dirty work for far too long. I don’t want female characters who are just “tough”. I want to see women on screen who are unafraid to be vulnerable and then strike back at their enemies. I want character arcs, not props.
The disturbing truth lying beneath the movie’s gritty exterior is that we’re not so far away from Miller’s outlandish world. Aside from the environmental concerns of draining our planet’s resources, Miller hits a huge blow with the position of women in our current society. If I have one criticism of Mad Max, it’s that the movie takes too long to get to one of its best aspects, and so it feels slightly abrupt when it reaches that point. I don’t want to spoil how the movie comes together, but when it does, it provides enough character diversity set against an incredible set piece to deliver a powerhouse rampage against misogynistic forces.
I’m in awe that this subtext is even present and so shrewdly included into such a gloriously bizarre and psychotic landscape. Mad Max: Fury Road is the action movie we’ve forgotten to demand, or perhaps we never knew we could ask for. Miller’s picture bursts from the mold, screaming and mesmerizing. It’s a pulse-pounding ride with tremendous performances, an electrifying score, unforgettable set design, astounding cinematography, and all in service of not only entertaining the audience, but also shaking them from a stupor. It may be odd to quote Aristotle when referring to a movie where characters have names like “Rictus Erectus” and “Toast the Knowing”, but the quote is well earned: “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.