My name is Max. My world is reduced to a single instinct: Survive. As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me… Or everyone else.
This is part of Max Rockatanksy’s opening narration to George Miller’s spartan tale of survival and hope in a world on fire. There are currently two focal points for reviews on this film:
- This is an amazing action movie, shot almost entirely in sequence on the backs of cars, full of amazing, tactile explosions and over the top insanity.
- This is a feminist story at its finest, with the heroine not only being a capable leader, but a disabled woman to boot.
See this movie for either of those reasons, because they are well fulfilled in the movie itself. I’d like to propose another reason to see it, however. This movie is a master course in story telling. It’s rare to get a movie that is so fully aware of itself that it does away with the need to have a character to ‘bring the audience up to speed.’ It’s exceptionally rare to find it in an action flick that borders on science fiction, both notorious for using the coming-of-age tale to expound on their universe. Miller’s Fury Road is uncompromising in its story telling, however, and does not pander to an audience unwilling to literally ride along on the ridiculously over worked car-steeds.
The cars themselves are as good a place to start as any. Gaudy, over worked, gas guzzling monstrosities, the cars are full extensions of the characters being portrayed. This is a simple issue to miss, in the frenzy of the movie, possibly mistaken for a well played trope, and to be sure, they are the very core of the world of Mad Max. This movie does something amazing with them, however, and to miss that is to miss the larger point of the story. The cars themselves are like the viking ships so prized by the Danish raiders of the 8th and 9th centuries. The clear correlation here is made with various mentions of Valhalla and the prayers of the War Boys to their cultish god of war and conquest, the V8, as well as their desire to be ‘witnessed’ and ‘die historic on the Fury Road.’ This cult is embodied by their leader Immortan Joe, who rules like a feudal lord, dispensing water, rather than riches, to his people, and hoarding ‘clean’ women as ‘breeders’ for hopefully healthy sons. Don’t mistake the over-the-top cars with simple eye candy, they tell the story of the War Boys, Citadel, and the apocalypse very clearly, their life is secured and advanced by those cars, and their status in the ranks of Citadel is illustrated in how unreasonable their modifications can be. The cars are idols, to be worshiped and revered, decorated and viewed with awe.
This bare bones story telling (none of this is ever mentioned directly) is a hallmark of great writing that colors so much of this movie. This is a lean film, spartan in the way it doles out details. I was worried at the initial narrated voice-over, setting up Max’s past, but that small moment of letting us in as an audience was the entire introduction we get. From that point on, we’re along for the ride. And that ride is truly magnificent.
The other great rarity of such a clear action movie, is the development of character. For a hero to gain some sort of self-awareness in one of these movies is very rare, for a secondary character to even be more than a flat reflective surface for the hero, is even more rare. Fury Road deftly handles three characters through an entire plot arc of self-awareness and growth, and then juggles the stories of at least two more very complex characters (one being Immortan Joe himself, despite his villainy) with very little screen time wasted on introspection or dense conversation. I’m going to focus on an aspect of Max’s growth for the sake of this part of the review.
You know… Hope is a mistake. If you don’t fix what’s broke, you’ll go insane.
The nihilism present in the Mad Max films is always a sore point with many viewers. Miller has, in Max, a character that illustrates that people live on long after they stop hoping. Max is no hero, he is a survivor. At the time we catch up to him in the movie, he has survived too much, and his guilt is gnawing at him continually. Every action he takes for the first half of the film is an animalistic, reflexive move to survive. It’s clear he has no desire to ‘be witnessed’ in a heroic death, but what’s unclear is why he doesn’t simply succumb. For some reason, he struggles to live, despite having nothing to live for. In many ways, his nihilism is a fear of dying, because there are things waiting for him on the other side of death’s door that are far worse than the scrabbling existence on this side. Gradually, and subtly, Max is given something to live for, and by the end of the film, we see that maybe something is being fixed. Not only is he a more than a hopeless survivor, but he is become a champion of a cause greater than any of the individual characters in the tale.
Opposed to Max’s story, or perhaps in a sort of counter point harmony to it, we have the story of Imperator Furiosa, the female hero that is being much raved about in the media. The truth of the matter is, she fits no trope of a female hero that we see regularly in film. She is all too human, and this is the threat of this character. She is approachable, and as a viewer, we can follow her arc from beginning to end in a very believable progression. She wastes no time on screen being impossibly hard (as many female leads tend to be) or in distress (as a romantic interest), rather, Furiosa is a story unto herself, and a damned fine one as well.In all, Fury Road is one of the best movies that will come out this year. If you go see it for either of the reasons it is getting a lot of press, you’ll likely leave wondering why it was so much more fantastic than you thought. I hope this post goes a little way to clearing some of that up. There’s obviously much more of the movie to review. In an ironic sort of turn, I’ll leave you with a quote from Ernest Hemingway on what makes a great story to explain it better than I could:
The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.~Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon