#800: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, dir. George Miller, 2015.
It’s hard to believe that this film only came out two years ago. Since then, I’ve probably seen it six or seven times - in cinemas, at home, and once at an outdoor cinema at a winery in Hawke’s Bay. It never fails to amaze me, and while some parts of it still make me twitch when they fall below ‘perfection’ this is Miller at the top of his game. I can’t imagine him improving on this film, either technically or thematically. It really is just that good.
What makes it all the more impressive to me is that this is one of those films where failure to achieve in any one of a host of different areas would immediately reduce this film to the level of ‘very good’. People on the internet have written exhaustively about the film’s narrative development, about its treatment of female characters (turns out having multiple women reduces the burden of representation! Who’da thought?), and about how it treats disability and mental illness as characteristic and baggage-free traits that don’t need to be central aspects of the character. I don’t want to add to the pile of work done by people far more educated and far more directly affected by these portrayals than I am. What I want to talk about is liquid.
It’s hardly surprising that in a film about a desolate and dry world, that water would be a significant object within Fury Road. However, it’s only one of several liquids that are important here. In fact, of the four most critical liquids, water is third in the list, beating only guzzolene in terms of symbolic importance. Ahead of it are Mothers’ milk and blood. Through this one narrative aspect, I think Miller shows exactly how much thought has gone into every part of this work. If this film were just a script, these thematic resonances would still be there.
Guzzolene and water are both directly connected to the masculine nature of the Mad Max films. In Fury Road, water is possessed by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) in much the same way as his wives are - a vital asset to be preserved and withheld in a ‘for your own good’ sort of way. Joe teases the gathered survivors with water as a device to control them, but is satisfied to let the water soak into the ground. Even though he knows the water is scarce, he is still stuck in the old ways of consumption. When we see his wives’ quarters, they are sealed behind a vault door and there is a grand piano in there, but these luxuries serve only to reinforce how much he objectifies them.
Like water, guzzolene is constantly wasted in the film, usually in pursuit of macho pandering. The war rigs are kitted out with the necessary sharp bits to keep raiders away, but the flames and the nitrous tanks and the turbochargers are less about functionality and more about performance, in the theatrical sense of the word. They bolster the masculinity of their drivers, which suggests to some degree just how fragile this masculinity is.
Above water, we have Mothers’ milk, which fills one of the tankers of the War Rig that Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is driving. This liquid is particularly potent as a symbol: not only does it tie into themes of motherhood and continuing generations (themes carried on in the group’s interactions with the Vuvalini), it also tied to Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject. The abject is that which is us but not us - it is disgusting partly because of its familiarity to us. If that sounds like anti-feminist nonsense, consider how disgusting we’re meant to perceive it as when the fully-grown Warboy Rictus samples a bottle of fresh Mothers’ milk. Later in the film, Max (Tom Hardy) uses a pail of Mothers’ milk to wash off the blood from his killing of the Bullet Farmer. It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to think about this as the milk of women washing away the sins of man, but that was the analogy that occurred to me in the moment, and I think there’s decent thematic support for it in the film.
However, Mothers’ milk is not a sacred liquid, and Immortan Joe and his Warboys are happy to see it wasted in pursuit of Joe’s wives. Their rigs pierce the tanker of Mothers’ milk with grappling hooks in an attempt to slow Furiosa’s rig down, and Miller lingers on several shots of the milk pouring from the tanker. No liquid is worth more to Immortan Joe than his wives are, it seems.
That being said, there are other characters in the film beside Immortan Joe, and here is where the fourth liquid comes into play: blood. Blood and Mothers’ milk are the only liquids to have more than one discrete use in the film. Mothers’ milk is useful for both child-rearing and for washing, it turns out. Max’s blood, though, is useful in three separate scenes: in his early role as a blood bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as a tool for drawing maps in the middle of the film, and as a transfusion partner for Furiosa near the end. This is why Miller hammers home the idea of Max as a universal donor both visually and verbally near the start of the film: we won’t need this information for 100 minutes, but when it turns up we’ll probably remember its significance.
(The idea of Max as a universal donor is true not just medically but psychologically too. He’s a provider of talent and strength on a par with the other characters.)
Unlike the other liquids, though, Max’s blood is never wasted - it always has a practical purpose whenever it’s employed. As weird as it sounds, this is the principal difference between Max and Immortan Joe: their relationship to others is defined by the concept of waste. Max and Joe both wind up prizing the wives, but Max doesn’t see them as objects by the end of the film. They display their individual talents and characters and both Max and Furiosa delegate tasks to them as needed. This idea of waste, though, is a true mark of difference. It indicates that Max is ideologically more closely-aligned with Furiosa and the wives than he is with Immortan Joe. It’s this that makes him a hopeful protagonist, rather than the antagonist some criticism framed Max as.
This whole theme is tied inextricably to a bunch of other elements of this film - editing, scripting, gender politics, the depiction of emotion as it relates to masculinity, all of it. This is why I think one misstep would seriously damage the film’s effectiveness overall.
Mad Max: Fury Road is not quite a perfect film - the final quarter is a bit more muddy than it could be, but never so much so that it makes the end result any less impressive. To have put so much thought into every major theme of your work, and to make all that work while managing amazing stuntwork, stellar character development and a colour palette and score to die for… that’s just good filmmaking. In fact, it’s a pretty good candidate for the best thing on the list.