margaret riley

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

George Miller waited almost twenty years to bring the fourth Mad Max film into existence but was postponed due to the attacks on 9/11. The original Mad Max (1979), which is the only other film of the franchise I have seen, has almost no connection to the newest edition except for the name of the central character, the Australian setting, and the appearance of a few weathered, dusty V-8 Interceptors as seen in the provided picture. Mad Max: Fury Road is neither a reboot or sequel to any of the films in the original trilogy (Miller says Fury Road exists in parallel with the other films); it is instead a reconfiguring of the vehicular chaos of that trilogy where Australia has moved into the post-apocalypse, water has replaced oil as the commodity of scarcity and one that begets violence, and where the main villain has a tireless fellow with a guitar that ejaculates flames as his hood ornament. You don’t have to be a psychologist to get that one and, yet, that isn’t even the wackiest thing in this damn movie. 

Despite what has been written, Fury Road is no cult classic. “Cult classic” necessitates that the film be obscure, known by few. Get rid of the “cult”. Mad Max: Fury Road is an action classic, perhaps the best action film of the young century. Its 120 minute runtime is essentially a pursuit film from the opening seconds; its plot paper-thin. But the thing is, cinema – more so than other art forms such as literature and especially television – is a medium of ideas, not narrative. Fury Road is a monument to that very idea and executes it so terrifyingly well.

Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a former police officer who finds himself in the captivity of the War Boys, pawns of dictator-cum-deity Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain in the original Mad Max). Joe has a stranglehold on an aquifer in which he exerts control over his penurious populace in a place called the Citadel. During what was supposed to be a routine expedition for gasoline, Joe realizes Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has driven off with his five wives – sexual slaves, but Joe has naming rights – in hopes to escape Joe’s tyranny. Joe checks on his wives’ quarters, releases the requisite baddie-is-furious scream, dons beskulled battle armor, and joins a war party to bring his wives back. Furiosa is able to escape the pursuing parties save a War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has strapped Max to the front of his car. Max will join forces with Furiosa and the wives – Capable (Riley Keough), Cheedo (Courtney Eaton), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Toast (Zoe Kravitz), and the pregnant Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) – in their attempt to escape from Joe’s forces. And, after some time and due to circumstance, Nux will join our heroes, too.

With the three previous Mad Max films produced on shoestring budgets, Fury Road seems to be the film that Miller was destined to make. Despite the expectations that Max will be the central character, he is instead a supporting character swept by the merciless dust storms of history that embrace this rocky, deceased land. The dictatorial patriarchy that Max is hinted to have fought has emerged victorious; the counter-order that Max came from has been destroyed by climate change, thermonuclear war, and the disintegration of a monopoly on violence. As the laconic Max and others like him (wherever they may be) are no longer in a position to affect change, that task falls upon Furiosa – sporting a shaved head and a prosthetic arm – who, to me, is the central character of this motion picture. Theron is up to this task, giving the film’s best performance. Through grunts and facial expressions suggesting past griefs and traumas, she endows our heroine with a mistrust of men without ever having to say a word about it. Furiosa is driven by one thing alone (permit me to be a sappy bastard as my write-up to Inside Out follows this) – the future of the women she has promised to protect and deliver to safety in this radical, perhaps fatal, act of defiance. It is almost as if Theron is channeling the ghost of Maria Falconetti, whose shaved head and nuanced facial expressions in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, France) surely must have influenced Furiosa’s characterization and, subsequently, Theron’s performance. Stay tuned silent film fans, I’ll be name dropping another silent film shortly!

The screenplay by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris is skinned of exposition. The psychology of Immortan Joe and the indoctrination of the War Boys are never explained; the dissolution of identifiable law and order as seen in the original Mad Max trilogy is only mentioned in the prologue and never suggested again. We don’t know to what extent Immortan Joe has been physically/sexually violent to the five women Furiosa must hide in the belly of her War Rig when Joe’s cacophonous caravan of carnage draws near. When the time comes to fire back and plunge makeshift weapons into the abdomens of onrushing War Boys, Furiosa maintains an appearance of eerie, unearthly calmness – not tears, not despair. There will be time for that later. More than any of the Mad Max films that preceded Fury Road, the newest entry is more concerned with liberation – not simply political liberation or sexual liberation, the latter being more problematic than most of its proponents will admit. Furiosa nor any of Joe’s five wives know what lies beyond the oil rig where Furiosa occasionally ventures towards. The plan is to simply escape from the sexualization and violence that has followed them all their lives. As one would imagine, such violence is stubborn as it cries for bloodlust and the diaphanous objectification of those who might continue Joe’s lineage. Who knew that one could mine so many feminist ideas in an ultraviolent, saturated action movie (just note that the presence of feminist ideas does not necessarily mean a film is feminist)?

Also, if a film can anger men’s rights activists, it must be doing something right!

Fury Road shares structural storytelling similarities to Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) – mostly because both films are centered on a life-and-death pursuit – and shares more in common with Looney Tunes antics than the action found in 1979′s Mad Max. The film is covered in as much shameless batshit as the most violent Looney Tunes shorts and the wackiest Buster Keaton comedies. It’s as if Furiosa and Max’s War Rig was Roadrunner and Joe’s forces were collectively Wile E. Coyote. But Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote exist within the confines of wholesome, anvil-dropping animation. I would have no idea why, if you have not seen the film, you will have read this far into the write-up but some spoilers will be divulged from now until the end of this paragraph. From the chrome paint that is applied before the War Boys attempt to enter Valhalla, all the masks, the milk, War Boys who don’t mind cackling and dangling over the sides of cars while they speed upwards of 100 mph, and War Boys hanging on massive poles in hopes to throw explosives and land on Furiosa’s War Rig, thank goodness Miller never feels the need to explain all these cockamamie details because there is no conceivable way one could concoct a serious explanation to these eccentricities. Needless to say, WTF meters will be broken. Fury Road takes the pursuit scenes, throws in too many flashing lights in an early example (those who are sensitive to such moments, please be warned that these lights occur within the first half-hour and never appear again), raises the stakes, and de-digitizes the effects to elevate the gravity of this desert chase. Yet within the traditions of Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner shorts and silent films, the madness of Fury Road is content to express anti-oppression ideologies through the actions the characters choose to take, displaying their evolutions in characterization without lecturing.

Cinematographer John Seale and editor Margaret Sixel are the unheralded forces behind the camera. Seale, persuaded by Miller to come out of retirement to shoot the film and whose previous credits do not suggest that he would have shot anything like Fury Road, saturates the film with harsh oranges and blues reminiscent of the days in Hollywood where night scenes in color films weren’t really shot at night but instead shot with a filter. The emptiness of the desert engorges on what looks like Technicolor. It makes the outback – the film was supposed to have been shot in Broken Hill, New South Wales but, due to heavy rains that saw wildflowers spring up, was moved to Namibia – a wordless, harsh character that only contributes to an uncertainty of what lies beyond the horizon. If anything, Seale does not use the flatness of the landscapes as much as he could to maximize that uncertainty. Sixel has a difficult task in that Fury Road contains a noticeably larger proportion of action sequences than the average action film. Her rapid-fire cutting from so many different angles will make hearts race amid the minimized CGI (Miller committed himself to use as many practical effects as possible); the decisions to accelerate the frame rate in select scenes proves distracting, making Fury Road resemble too much of a silent film and allowing for some unintentional comedy. 

Junkie XL’s (the stage name of Tom Holkenborg) electronics-heavy score to Fury Road is nothing like Brian May’s work to the first two Mad Maxes and Maurice Jarre’s for the third. In line with the need to reimagine Mad Max for the purposes of Fury Road, Miller selected a Hans Zimmer disciple for this film. Now, as many of you know, I have been highly critical of Zimmer the last several years for his synthetic sameness. Junkie XL’s score to Fury Road, like Zimmer’s many scores since Batman Begins, is a brutal one. But that brutality – when mixed with ceaseless ultraviolence, slavelike drummers, and a guitarist with a pyromaniacal streak that I wanted to smash in the face with his own instrument – makes Junkie XL’s score make more contextual sense than your average Zimmer score. With pounding percussive elements, passages that are all about that bass, and strings that have nothing to do but ostinato mindlessly away, Fury Road’s score is curiously disjointed and non-action motifs rarely carry over from one scene to the next. It is a textbook example of how a film score works far better in context than heard independently. The occasional anarchy of Junkie XL’s score sees dissonance in the non-action scenes, making for an unpleasant – at least, to the bias of my ears – listen.

For its presentation of feminist ideas to an extent almost unheard of in action films, its spectacular CGI, and spellbinding performances by Charlize Theron and Hugh Keays-Byrne, Mad Max: Fury Road is a glorious action film that has more similarities to an American Western than a piece of dystopic science-fiction. Well, that is if you can picture a Western with stagecoaches with dozens of ten-foot long spikes, horses sprinting with layers of paint on them, and a steaming locomotive run by really attractive renegade women escaping a violent land baron who remains in power despite the incursions of a John Wayne-led cavalry regiment. Oh, and for extra measure, let’s throw in Gene Autry perched on top of the pursuing locomotive rocking out to “Back in the Saddle Again” (if it is possible to rock out to “Back in the Saddle Again”) on his flamethrowing guitar. As is evidenced in this last paragraph, I still haven’t recovered from the FUCK, YEAH, nearly seizure-inducing adrenaline rush that is one of the greatest action films made in many moons. 

Miller threw all the batshit he could scrape up at the fan and boy, am I grateful for the mess he has made.

My rating: 9/10

^ Based on my personal imdb rating.

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