You can’t go into Mad Max: Fury Road and not come out of the cinema like you’ve been birthed again (well, some can, but, seriously, fuck those insanely stupid misogynists). It is a transcendent experience. Rotten Tomatoes can barely handle the critical adoration at 98%. Hell, even the ghost of Roger Ebert gave it 4/4 stars. All the evidence is here. My expectations were sky-high. And they were gloriously met. Here’s some reasons you should run, not walk, to the nearest theater to catch this new Mad Max adventure.
This is pure filmmaking, at it’s finest. Among the first things recorded on film were trains coming at the camera. Things in motion is the joy of cinema. They’re “motion pictures” after all. George Miller understands that, which is why when he began this journey with the first Mad Max film in 1977 starring a then-unknown Mel Gibson. He set out to make action chase films, arguably achieving a pinnacle on the sequel, 1979’s The Road Warrior. A third film followed, 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome after which Gibson became a global star.
The fourth film, which would become Fury Road followed an Apocalypse Now-style trip to the screen. First conceived right before 9/11, Gibson was set to return before the economy and world changed, continually setting the film back until Gibson dropped out. He had some personal issues, you may have heard.
Tom Hardy was cast in the title role way back in 2010 and Charlize Theron joined around then. Rumors of a fifth film subtitled Furiosa being shot back-to-back with Fury Road surfaced. It wasn’t until mid-2012 that filming began, a massive 130-day shoot in the deserts of Namibia, Africa. After a year of post-production, re-shoots were called that typically drove the internet wild, but were calmed by such journalists as Birth.Movies.Death’s Devin Faraci. Talk of the turbulent, difficult shoot and production leaked out. All of this is to say, all that sweat, tears, and blood shows up on screen in the BEST way.
The effort drips from the frames. The film is so clearly a love letter and work of passion that it is damn near impossible not to caught up in Miller’s mad vision. The lighting and color-grading is orange-and-blue, alternating between the hot sands of the day and the cool blues of night and morning. Every prop and character has, by Miller’s own admission, a detailed backstory that, while not appearing on screen, informs the production and the actors’ performances. That depth is tangible and the Wasteland becomes real before our eyes.
Miller doesn’t waste time explaining things, adding authenticity instead of exposition to his story. He let’s things speak for themselves. This extends from the world he builds to the characters he sketches. They are defined by what they do, as the pursuit keeps them perpetually on the run, in motion. There’s great joy in seeing someone who can only be called a master (after almost 40 years of doing anything, you can pretty much be called a master by default) of the film taking the opportunity to execute his vision with absolute simplicity. Excess of explosions doesn’t extend to excess in his storytelling, quite unlike the other summer blockbuster dominating at the moment, Avengers: Age of Ultron (my review).
Miller doesn’t just use the tools of cinema as a director but he keeps his story lean and, at its core, simple. This movie is a giant chase. This post-apocalyptic world has regressed to a time of survival; kill or be killed, fight or flight, run or die. There’s a brief set-up and then we’re off to the races and the chase itself structured like a story with 3 “acts” that flow together like music. It’s classical but gonzo and in-your-face at the same time.
Miller’s themes are well-hidden by subtext and silence, but a review by AintItCool’s Nordling encapsulated the broader theme of the film, the umbrella under which our characters’ arcs fall: “For George Miller, hope and optimism are rebellious acts, that scream through the darkness that all will find the light again.”
With him, Miller assembled a great ensemble anchored not by our lead Hardy (more on him below) but by Imperator Furiosa, played by a shaved Charlize Theron with a badass post-apocalyptic prosthetic arm. She is, for lack of a better description, a “female road warrior,” more than a match for our title hero and, indeed, perhaps exactly what our hero needs to bring him back from the brink of madness.
Like the storytelling flourishes that deepen the picture, Miller let’s the little things differentiate the characters. Hardy is chased by visions and memories of his past, where he was a cop who’s wife and children were murdered. Miller, in a meta-sense, treats this as the encroaching past of the previous trilogy that led to the broken-down Max we meet as our introductory narrator, a figure as foreign as the landscape with a new actor inhabiting the role. Good thing that actor is Hardy.
Max is the perfect role for him, playing exactly to his strengths as a barely-articulate beast of a man who says so much more with his body than he ever could with his words. It makes him fit like a glove in Miller’s purified, medieval action-fest. More than ever, it’s evident he is the heir apparent to Marlon Brando, James Dean, complete with pouty lips, inscrutable eyes, and an unintelligible growl. He communicates in grunts,sighs, eye rolls, etc. Movement above all. The most surprising part of the film is the amount of humor that comes from Hardy’s gestures.
I’m a fan of Nicholas Hoult and was happy to see he was given his own arc, much as the five wives are. In a lesser movie, these women would be treated as nothing more than human MacGuffins, but once Miller decided upon human cargo as the instigator of this massive chase, he allows the implications of that to seep in. Hugh Keays-Byrne, an actor from the original film, fills the role of warlord Immortan Joe, a worthy villain not dissimilar to Hardy’s own Batman enemy Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
In a fantastic move, Miller flew in Eve Ensler, playwright of The Vagina Monologues into Namibia while she herself was in Africa in the Congo helping women who have been abused and raped in war zones. She privately met with the five actresses to give them insight in a world unbound by Western ideas of civilization, the world their characters inhabit is all-too-familiar in our, present-day reality. The film isn’t hypocritical, exploitative, or gratuitous in the least. Although I wouldn’t call its politics subtle, they’re completely organic and “earned,” natural to the tale being told. Any issue with them is a sign of deep-seated insecurity. There’s A LOT to dig into here, something I’m looking forward to doing in a future column. The most potent moment in the movie for me was when the villain finds his “breeders” missing and all we see are the carvings on the walls. “We Are Not Things.”
It defies genre. It proves that a masterpiece is never made by one person. It’s not great for any one reason but because of all of them together make the best action blockbuster film 15 years into this century. I liked Avengers: Age of Ultron quite a bit, but it’s a cacophony. It’s the equivalent of a massively piled plate from every course on the buffet line. If you want cinematic awe on a level you wouldn’t believe, that stands out in a noisy CGI-ed landscape, Mad Max: Fury Road is the only option.