Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

by Dan Fields

Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy as Mad Max battle desert hordes on the Fury Road
© 2015 Warner Bros. Pictures

An Apocalypse We Can Really Get Behind And Cheer

“Mad” Max Rockatansky, the Aussie lawman turned renegade drifter, is a figure of lore both onscreen and off. After thirty years of wandering, he continues living up to his legend. Three full, real-life decades have passed since the last Mad Max film, Beyond Thunderdome, but the legacy of the Road Warrior has only grown stronger with age. Tom Hardy has replaced Mel Gibson in the iconic role, but the series is still in the capable hands of its original director, George Miller. This fourth Mad Max adventure so defies all notions of restraint and “safe” narrative that it seems in constant danger of derailment and self-destruction. Instead, Miller takes every curve with a deft hand. Mad Max: Fury Road is challenging, bewildering, frequently horrifying, and easily one of the most exciting movies ever made.

Following the untold ravages of the nuclear age, the known world is a vast desert, with scattered outposts jealously guarding whatever resources they have. Places called Gas Town and the Bullet Farm hint strongly at what sort of society has survived into the present. Motor vehicles are as crucial to survival as horses would be in a Western, and everyone lucky enough to own a car or motorcycle has lovingly souped it up with demented glee into a rolling siege weapon. The major settlement of this world is The Citadel, a castle carved into towering rock walls where disfigured warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, returning from former infamy as the villain Toecutter in the original Mad Max) rules supreme over a wretched populace. He tantalizes them with large stores of fresh groundwater, letting them taste it infrequently like a sweet drug to ensure their cowed obedience.

The adventure begins when Immortan Joe sends his top driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), on a routine supply run. Shortly after her departure, word gets out that Furiosa has in fact gone rogue. Instead of fetching precious ammunition and gasoline (which they pronounce “guzzl-ene”), she has spirited away five of Immortan Joe’s Wives – the most nubile women left in the Citadel – whom he keeps as breeding stock in the hope of starting a new non-toxic bloodline. They are headed for a brighter future, but not before they outrun the hellish fury of Immortan Joe’s attack forces. These women are played by actual models (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton), clad like classical nymphs in light flowing muslin, embodying an ideal of health and beauty in contrast to everything and everyone else in the film. A fatal assumption made by all those pursuing them is that they cannot or will not fight for themselves. Woe to their would-be captors.

Immortan Joe’s home guard is a race of zealots known as the Warboys. Chalked a ghostly white, riddled with alarming scars and body art, the Warboys worship Immortan Joe and their prized automobiles in almost equal measure. By loyal service to the former using the raw power of the latter, they hope for triumphant rebirth in some sort of turbocharged Valhalla. Whether from inbreeding, irradiation, plague, malnutrition, or most likely a power combo sampling all of the above, these Warboys are fatally contaminated, gradually dying from nasty lesions and tumors which they fight by constantly replenishing themselves with blood from healthy donors. Max, beginning the film as a prisoner of the Citadel, is meant to serve as one such “blood bag” to a deranged Warboy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). This queasy conceit is what brings Max into the chase. Nux must carry him along, bound to the foremast of Nux’s battle car as a living intravenous drip, when Immortan Joe mobilizes his troops in pursuit of Furiosa.

Despite their vulnerable position and obvious sex appeal, the Wives are not a predictable bevy of cowering damsels, merely to be traded or fought over. Once Furiosa helps initiate their rescue, they prove durable and resourceful throughout the endless barrage of violence and terror. Logic dictates that nobody in the film, whatever their hardships or handicaps, could be a true weakling. No one could still be alive in this world without possessing a certain quantity of grit. The Fury Road is an ordeal of endurance, and if the whole, fully human party of heroes can simply outlast and outsmart the heavily armed parade of freaks at their heels, the degenerate fury that gives Immortan Joe and the Warboys such potent menace will eventually consume them.

The power of Fury Road‘s ensemble is one of its best surprises. This goes for the heroes and the villains, meaning that not a single character is wasted. The story is inextricably woven into the legend of Mad Max, but the story is not his alone, nor is it exclusively the story of those he inevitably joins, nor does it even belong completely to the sympathetic characters. There is not a single stock character in the film, and not one without an essential purpose. This includes the legions of Warboy cannon fodder. This mad play even has a chorus – a rampaging war galley full of ecstatic drummers, leading the charge alongside Immortan Joe’s personal staff car. The frontman of the act is a trussed-up heavy metal guitarist, whose instrument shoots jets of flame as he shreds and shreds and shreds. More than any other, this jubilant monster symbolizes the distilled lunacy of the entire film.

Hardy, now infamous as Batman’s towering opponent Bane, has nonetheless resisted falling into a type. True, he seems more than comfortable filling the shoes of a menacing bruiser, as in The Dark Knight Rises and Bronson, but his body of work spans everything from diabolical villainy in Star Trek: Nemesis to suffocating humanity in Steven Knight’s one-man drama Locke. While this taciturn role demands substantial brawn, Hardy’s face and body language successfully communicate deep pyschological damage, a deadly survival instinct, and a grudging glimmer of humanity still burning beneath it all. Theron smolders opposite him with steely, dangerously compressed rage. Even smeared with axle grease, her default expression of fearsome resolve is practically incandescent. These two protagonists barely speak, but their shared survival acumen allows them to communicate with glances and grunts as if they have known each other for many years. Hoult, normally recongizable from any number of film and TV roles (Skins, About A Boy, X-Men: First Class), makes a transformation worthy of a supervillain as the colorful maniac Nux.

Leaving aside a near-constant parade of heart-stopping stunts and effects, the attention to detail (both pleasant and unpleasant) in Fury Road is a separately commendable feat. All but the very best visions future dystopia in film rely on shorthand science fiction conceits and ponderous exposition, but Fury Road script reveals every weird layer of its killed world with almost no explanation. The physical, visual, and emotional logic of the plot is such that even the most bizarre elements fit into the coherent whole. The world of Fury Road is exceptionally well thought through,. The story makes sense no matter what oddities and baffling horrors manifest themselves along the way. We never learn exactly what traumatic memories have driven Max to half-insanity, because that information is unimportant and could only slow the film down. We learn plenty to understand his decisions. In like fashion, whole hours could have been spent flashing back to Furiosa’s troubled past and the rise of Immortan Joe, but none of these would improve the stark shock of being dropped into this apocalyptic chase mid-stride. This is a brilliant example of how much more cleanly an adventure tale runs without the burdern of origin stories. Let no one say that one of the most full-tilt action spectacles in recent memory cannot benefit from a healthy balance of subtlety and ambiguity. Add to this the crucial virtue of narrative fearlessness. By making everyone, even the apparent victims, active combatants in the chaos of bottle, Miller refuses to guarantee anyone’s safety. In lesser films there is an implicit certainty that certain characters will survive to the end, no matter what dangers they face. Unburdened by any regard for insipid storytelling taboos, Fury Road allows viewers to fear for the safety of every character until the very last moment. Thank goodness there are still directors living who appreciate these principles. Hopefully this film will be as influential as it is entertaining.