So this is the first of my draft purgatory articles, I’ve decided to to write a brief introduction to each and give you some insight as to why I didn’t post it. I originally wrote this three months ago when I saw Mad Max in theaters, but then made the mistake of reading other people’s reviews of it and decided I wasn’t saying anything new, so what was the point? The point is, of course, that you can never have too many points of view on something. In honor of Mad Max: Fury Road’s Blu-ray release I decided to make this the first draft purgatory article to be released into the wild.
Mad Max: Fury Road is another movie I judged by its cover, a mistake I keep making. I never saw the original Mad Max, and what I saw of the previews made it look like another mindless action movie that would emphasize big, mind-numbing CGI battles and over-the-top characters over story and character development. All of that on top of the fact it was a remake of an old movie, something that typically never ends well, and I was totally uninterested in seeing it. But again, just like Spec Ops: The Line, I heard nothing but good things about it.
So high an uncharacteristic bout of courage and confidence, I asked a girl out on a date and we went to see Mad Max. This probably wasn’t a good movie for a second date, because I never heard from her again, but who cares? This movie is awesome.
Mad Max: Fury Road
A Storytelling Review
Mad Max is a remarkable movie, and it’s not just because it’s a feature-length car chase with some of the greatest physical effects in movie history. It also has some of the tightest writing I’ve ever seen; every single sentence serves the story, there’s not a single piece of superfluous dialogue in the entire thing. Where most modern movies feature long-winded exposition and constant smart-ass quips between characters, Mad Max manages to leave all of that behind and focus entirely on its story and characters. Max himself has so few lines that he could have been played by a plank of wood, but of course that would have robbed us of Tom Hardy’s incredible performance. He manages to convey so much emotion in so few words that if he doesn’t get an Oscar nod from this, then those awards will become even more worthless than I already think they are.
The story starts after the end of the world, after thermonuclear war has destroyed most of the planet. It takes the movie about five seconds to explain this and while I’m usually not a fan of narration in film, in this case it works. Tom Hardy’s growling, guttural voice gives you the impression of a man who so rarely uses his voice that it’s become rusted from neglect. It really immerses you in the world of Mad Max because Tom Hardy’s voice, more so than the words he’s saying, let the audience know that not only is the world decaying but so are the people in it.
After a look at the horrifically brutal life of deprivation that plagues the people of The Citadel we’re introduced to Immortan Joe, the deified warlord and ruler of the Citadel. Immortan Joe’s speech to his people is a great example of how concise this script is and t reveals all the crucial information the audience needs to know in the span of maybe thirty seconds:
We learn that Immortan Joe controls the water supply, but that his society values gasoline (guzzoline) more highly than the most basic need humans need to survive, revealing that his society is self-destructive to the extreme. Finally it introduces Furiosa as the most trusted of Immortan Joe’s most trusted lieutenants. This is all further reinforced by the great visuals.
Whereas another, lesser movie might waste time showing her slowly gaining Immortan Joe’s trust and then pulling off a convoluted heist to save her sisters, Fury Road wisely skips all that noise and jumps right into the story. Furiosa hangs a left and drives out into the desert carrying with her Immortan Joe’s enslaved wives, and the chase scene to end all chase scenes begins.
So you might be wondering where Mad Max is and why I haven’t mentioned him yet. Well the reason is he’s been hanging around as a human blood-transfusion bag attached to one of the disease-ridden War Boys, Immortan’s fanatical soldiers. After getting chased through a hellish combination dust and electrical storm, Mad Max attempts to free himself from the shackles and tubes tying him to the knocked-out War Boy. This is one of the most important scenes in the film because it sets the tone for everything that follows. Max begins desperately trying to cut the shackles off of him, and it’s that desperation that sets the stakes of the story.
Max is afraid to die.
It’s such a basic fear, but think about how rarely you see this in stories. It reminds me of the scene from the horribly disappointing The Dark Knight Rises where the old prisoner explains to Batman that not fearing death is a weakness because a person will perform amazing feats to escape death. This applies to storytelling even more so, if you’re characters don’t possess the most basic fear that governs all life on Earth, then you’re going to lose a lot of the tension in the story. I think Marvel’s movies are the best example of this, where not only are most of the characters invincible god-creatures, but they also go out of their way to make sarcastic quips while in the middle of apocalyptic battles. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Marvel movies, I do, but they just don’t carry the same emotional weight.
The stakes are further reinforced by Furiosa’s fear of getting caught and her desire to protect her sisters at any cost. Max attempts to hijack the tanker from Furiosa and she kicks his ass pretty hard, which you might expect from a woman with a mechanical claw-hand. Max only manages to win by holding Furiosa’s sisters hostage, again emphasizing the fact that all Max wants to do is escape to live another day. Unfortunately he can’t drive the tanker without Furiosa and so for the sake of mutual survival, they team up and form the best buddy-duo since Turner and Hooch.
The evolving relationship between Max and Furiosa was the best part of the movie for me. I’m a sucker for good movies about friendships and that’s essentially what this movie was, a look at how two people came to trust and protect each other in the worst of circumstances. It was especially refreshing since it was a friendship between a man and a woman that didn’t try to shoehorn in a romantic relationship. There’s no sexual tension between the characters or playful banter, which keeps the story focused on the story and characters. The monosyllabic Max has only a handful of lines in the entire movie, but the power of Tom Hardy’s performance manages to convey all of Max’s emotions without him needing to say a word. Furiosa’s sisters get very little screen time as well, but the tightly written script ensures they all feel like real, breathing human beings.
Not a single one of them falls into a stereotypically “princess in the tower” trope, they all have their own distinct personalities and all of them have been traumatized by years of sexual slavery under Immortan Joe. Angharad, heavily pregnant with Joe’s child, manages to save Max by using herself as a human shield before falling off the truck. Immortan Joe crashes his truck in a failed effort to avoid her, which is what gives Max and the others a chance to escape. Yet despite having lost one of her sisters, when Capable finds Nux on the truck, she shows him mercy.
Nux was the crazed War Boy that Max had been attached to earlier in the film, he manages to sneak aboard the tanker with plans to assassinate Furiosa. Fortunately he’s a bit of an idiot and immediately gets knocked unconscious. Nux manages to steal quite a few scenes thanks to Nicholas Hoult playing the character with such humanity. This is a movie that could easily have written off the War Boys as mindless cannibal rapists like so many post-apocalyptic stories, but Mad Max: Fury Road took the braver path and actually characterized them.
In Nux’s conversations with Capable, the girl who rescues him, he reveals that he’s just a kid terrified of the cancer eating away at his body. He joined the War Boys for the same reason a lot of kids join gangs, he wanted a sense of belonging and safety. And he followed Immortan Joe’s cult because Joe promised him a place in Valhalla, where Nux could see his friends again when he died. He was scared and alone, and he wanted some semblance of safety and belonging in a fucked up world. Not surprisingly, when confronted by compassion and understanding, Nux leaves behind his twisted beliefs and helps Max and Furiosa in their escape.
Their escape takes them through a swampland, a desolate and rotting landscape, emerging on the other side having finally put some distance between them and Immortan Joe’s army. It’s here that Furiosa reunites with her old tribe, the awesomely named Vuvalini, and a half-dozen of the most badass women in the world. When Furiosa learns that the dead swampland they’d just passed through is actually the fabled Green Land that they’d been searching for, and that most of the friends and family she’d hoped to reunite with are dead, Charlize Theron gives us one of the most heart wrenching scenes in the movie. It’s like the polar opposite of Darth Vader’s “NOOOOOO!” scene from Episode 3, a primal shriek that conveys the pain and frustration that can only come from having suffered so much to find out the paradise you hoped to find had died long ago.
Furiosa plans to take what fuel they can and drive off into the salt flats, a sun baked hellscape, hoping to find a new home on the other side. Max, however, has a bolder strategy: go back the way they came and take The Citadel from Immortan Joe. What follows is some of the best action I’ve ever seen in a movie, men throw themselves from speeding cars and use giant see-sawing poles to board the tanker. Many of the Vulvalini don’t survive the battle, unfortunately, but they all go down fighting the good fight.
At one point Furiosa takes a knife in the back and thanks to the stakes set by the movie, it’s clear that this is a life-threatening injury. Unlike tons of other action movies, Furiosa can’t just shrug off her injury, but that doesn’t mean she stops either. Bleeding out only encourages her to use her last vestiges of strength to do what she should have done years ago.
Remember me!? – Furiosa to Immortan Joe
Those are Furiosa’s words to Joe as she rips most of his face off. This is another brilliant example of both the script and the movie’s director George Miller showing instead of telling. We could have had a scene earlier in the movie where Furiosa confides in Max the horrors of her life and what Immortan might have done to her, but such a scene would have been unnecessary because all the information we need to know is already there.
Furiosa starts out terrified of Joe, she’s incredibly courageous in her bid to escape from Immortan, but actually fighting him was never part of her plan. By the end of the film Furiosa has had a chance to mourn for the home she lost so long ago and remember the proud people she came from, she’s remembered the little girl she used to be before Immortan Joe took her. So when Furiosa tells him to remember her, she’s telling him to remember the little girl he abducted from her family, the defiant girl who he tried to break and brainwash into becoming the leader of his armies. She wants him to know that nothing he ever did was enough to break her, and now nothing will save him from her.
Furiosa returns to The Citadel and presents Immortan Joe’s body to the surviving War Boys, the people rise up and celebrate her victory, and Max disappears into the crowd.
It’s not a complicated story, but the greatest stories never are. Mad Max: Fury Road is elegant. That might seem like a strange word to use in an action movie featuring monster trucks, exploding spears and crazed killers but it absolutely fits. The script is astoundingly concise, the characters are incredible, the acting is sublime and the practical effects are simply amazing. It’s an action movie that subverts all the typical themes and tropes we associate with action movies; it’s filled with powerful female characters, it doesn’t promote hyper masculine ideals, and most importantly it’s not just a mindless vehicle for explosions. It’s about home, redemption, and humanity.
It’s a story everyone can relate to, and it’s a story you all owe it to yourselves to see.