Deep Focus: Mad Max: Fury Road
Over half of Mad Max: Fury Road unfolds in action-spectacle nirvana. Movement, images, and some plucky actors carry all the emotion and humor a movie of this scale needs, and its kinetic force delivers an adrenaline boost to your system. In the years Australian filmmaker George Miller spent reworking the script with comic-book artist Brendan McCarthy and actor-dramaturge Nico Lathouris (who played Grease Rat over 35 years ago in Mad Max) he found ways of plunging into a dystopia that’s at once baroque and bananas, without pausing for exposition or an extraneous gesture or syllable. Like a great workout, the best parts leave you feeling happily spent.
Set in a fortress city-state run as a religious cult and the wasteland surrounding it, Mad Max: Fury Road contains the most bizarrely detailed and enthralling demolition derbies ever staged. But at its best it also plays like an inspired mashup of movies like Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur—silent epics that captivate audiences with their imagination, power, and panache. Max is still a bit of a lug, brooding over barren landscapes and occasionally mumbling an existential homily. (“In this wasteland, I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead. A man reduced to a single instinct: survive.”) But his mulish road-warrior integrity makes him the perfect guide into postapocalyptic settings that for once are emotionally primordial and logistically complex.
In the greased-lightning setup, Max, played by Tom Hardy in his trademark brooding mode, hightails through the Plains of Silence in his customized Interceptor (a modified Australian Ford Falcon V-8). In what feels like a nanosecond, male warriors in white body and face paint—the “War Boys”—intercept him while screaming like banshees. They haul him into The Citadel, where they brand him with its logo—a death’s-head in a steering wheel—and cage him in the Blood Bank as a “donor” for ailing soldiers in their ranks. The opening is split as dangerously and neatly as a serpent's tongue between Max's fate and that of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a skinheaded Amazon who drives the Citadel's weaponized fuel truck, the War Rig.
The Citadel’s ruler and Furiosa’s commander is the warlord and self-styled demigod Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who wears a mask over his mouth, jaw, and neck, complete with super-long horse teeth and heavy-duty breathing tubes and filters. He also sports Plexiglas armor to parade his metals and girdle his tumors and flab. His wild mane of whitish hair and laser-like glare fuse his menacing appearance, and Keays-Byrne (who played Toecutter in Mad Max) spits commands with the full-bodied fustian of a man who's accustomed to being obeyed. When he orders Furiosa to make a fuel run to Gas Town, he has no reason to believe she won't follow his orders.
Furiosa dares to go rogue. Before she does, Miller tells us everything we want to know and are afraid to ask about the Citadel. The director visualizes Joe’s grotesque domain in fierce, hinged tableaux that come together with a snap. In a towering, craggy natural compound, as majestic as Monument Valley and as eerie as Australia’s Ayers Rock, Miller erects a rocky kingdom on an aquifer. Joe’s monopoly on water allows him to build a society based on rabid devotion—to himself. Chutes in the mountainside mete out daily floods of “Aqua Cola” to lowly Citadel-dwellers, as loudspeakers pipe warnings about “water addiction.” This pure H20 has become the be-all, end-all; the environment is generally so polluted that malformations and cancers rampage through the population. Joe fills caves far removed from the mob with greenery from hydroponics and machines that pump milk from lactating women for his family and soldiers. Down below, various dungeons swell with captives. High above, Joe's sons man the observation room: one is a giant, muscled warrior who has a slow-moving brain and much more modest inhaling tubes while the other is physically stunted but has an active, adult mind.
Joe has convinced the unwashed hordes that he is divine and has persuaded the War Boys that dying in combat will elevate them to Valhalla. But Joe never forgets that he's a mortal who needs a proper heir to hold his fiefdom together. So for him it's a primal and a political tragedy when he goes into his harem and finds it empty except for his five wives' caretaker. On the walls are scrawled chalk messages, including “We Are Not Things.”
It's marvelous how Miller reveals the workings of Joe’s system, tossing off exquisitely wrought images in a way that also fixes them in memory. He and editor Margaret Sixel imbue the film with a propulsive tempo. Their rhythmic magic comes partly from the sight and sound of minions pounding on drums, setting a beat for the men who work the winches to labor in unison. They're like the drummers who keep galley slaves rowing as one in toga movies (notably Niblo’s Ben-Hur), except these drummers work en masse, in a setting as topsy-turvy and vertiginous as the city in Metropolis. To enter Joe's sanctum, visitors must be winched up, but some of the operations rooms and dungeons are farther up or down or sideways. These dizzying catacombs operate not just on fealty and regimentation but also on adolescent testosterone. The War Boys whip themselves into a kamikaze frenzy before an altar of V-8 steering wheels.
Among the War Boys champing at the bit for battle is the pivotal character Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who knows that his “half-life” is ending thanks to a couple of tumors he nicknames Larry and Barry. He wants one last chance to enter Valhalla in glory. Opportunity knocks when Furiosa takes an unannounced detour from her Gas Town route, and Joe reckons that she's hidden the women in the War Rig. Max's blood has been pouring into Nux via an intravenous drip. Nux gets the mad inspiration to strap Max to the front of his car with the blood apparatus attached to a facemask, an image that recalls pirates using Romans as makeshift prow-heads and battering rams in Ben-Hur.
What ensues is a freak-out blend of super-charged chariot race and phantasmagoric war movie. Combatant drivers try to bounce each other into oblivion or grind on each other's wheels. Lancers toss spear-mounted grenades. Miller and his brilliant cinematographer, John Seales, shoot with multiple cameras from wildly different angles so that fighting breaks out in every corner of the screen and it still makes lunatic sense. Every character and act becomes even crazier in this film's great arid outdoors, but they all remain comprehensible. Instead of a regimental band, the War Boys have a hard-rock guitarist whose axe shoots fire, backed by a phalanx of taiko drummers. That's what I call Burning Man.
With Hardy hidden behind a mask for roughly 45 minutes, two other superb performers take up the slack of connecting with an audience. Hoult delivers a high-pitched tour-de-force as Nux, which is all the more touching and scary because of his improbable exuberance. When Immortan Joe glances in his direction and the War Boy believes that he’s made eye contact with his immortal leader, Nux screams: “He looked at me! He looked at me!” Nux is certain his leader is telling him that he's awaited in Valhalla. The depth of Nux's exultation prepares you for the evolution of his character.
The other astonishing performer is Theron. In her first tight close-up, she looks in the rearview mirror—and seems to be looking right at us. With her head shaved and her body toned, she gives a display of intelligence and emotion that's alternately telepathic and balletic. Whether she's coolly taking Max's measure or hiding her anxiety about protecting her precious cargo, she lets us know exactly what Furiosa is thinking. When her prosthetic arm is ripped off in a fight, Theron, not the makeup and digital-effect artists, conveys how vulnerable Furiosa feels without her device. Theron is inspiring when she pours intuition and lifeblood into this damaged character, and heartbreaking when she shows it ebbing away. But because of Theron’s talent and conviction, you never count Furiosa out.
Hardy does pull off a difficult feat as Mad Max: his commitment to the character includes doing enough of the daredevil stunts that you never catch the substitution of his stunt double. Hardy's specialty has often been making qualities like ruefulness and alienation dynamic. Max keeps his distance from all the others, so Hardy draws on his own eruptive charisma to throw off a dramatic force field. In his slyest moment, he shoots an ally a minimalist thumb’s up. What hems Hardy in is Miller's determination to keep Max tethered to his loner mythos. By the climax, it reaches a ludicrous extreme: when Max wanders off this time, he seems to doom the human race; there isn’t another healthy man in sight.
But the movie runs out of steam before that. Miller wants to contrast the rock-and-roll rococo stylings of the Citadel and battle scenes with the fresh simplicity of the runaway women—youthful knockouts clad in wispy scraps of cotton and muslin. Miller does his best to individualize them, as do the fetching, talented performers (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton). Most successfully (and movingly) Keough's “Capable” undertakes War Boy Nux's emotional rehabilitation. But you know as little about their pasts as you do about the addled wives in Tommy Lee Jones's The Homesman.
Furiosa tells them that together they'll reach “The Green Place,” her homeland, from which Joe had snatched her as a child. It's too Of Mice and Men for this wised-up movie: she appears poised to talk about how they'll “live off the fatta the lan'” and “get to tend the rabbits.” It doesn't prove so simple, but the ensuing disappointments and reversals don't match the imaginative richness of the buildup. Your heart may sink, as mine did, when the action pulls not just a 180, but a complete 360. Happily, by then, Miller has introduced enough new ingredients to keep his pot boiling, including a can-do clutch of sharp-shooting older women called the Vuvalini (notably Megan Gale as “The Valkyrie” and Melissa Jaffer as “Keeper of the Seeds”). Even when Miller's unmatched action pyrotechnics begin to feel like the same ol', same ol', he comes up with revitalizing flourishes. In the climactic battle, War Boy lancers perch on vaulting poles attached to Joe’s attack cars; they sway over enemy vehicles and lob grenades right into them. My favorite moment, though, is a quiet one. As the runaway women take in a coruscating starscape, one of the Vuvalini points out what she says is a satellite that used to convey information around the world. “Shows,” one of the women says. “Everybody had a show.” Has there ever been a subtler, wittier, or more gorgeous tribute to social media?
After the international sensation of the original Mad Max in 1979 and 1980, Miller decided that he'd tapped into the deep mythic roots of the loner hero. I wish Miller had drawn a different lesson. Working quickly and on hunches, a seat-of-the-pants filmmaker can capture a global mood. By setting a revenge epic in the bleak near future, he'd created a scabrous, funny, nihilistic fantasy for audiences who were weary of political cowardice and duplicity, a counterculture turned sour, expensive and frustrating oil shortages, spikes in inflation, and the first onslaughts of international terrorism. Drawing on his experiences as an emergency-room doctor and a boy growing up in Chinchilla in rural Queensland, Mad Max united the grisliness of the scary “educational” films that once were shown to high school kids before prom night with a sense of “the sticks” as a scary place to be in the mid-to-late 20th century. And, of course, it had a command of energies colliding in widescreen space comparable to Sam Peckinpah's. (For a price that fit his puny budget, Miller reportedly bought wide-screen camera lenses that had been used on Peckinpah's 1972 The Getaway.)
Miller has become a giant of big-audience moviemaking, with credits like the freakishly beautiful and original Babe: Pig in the City (98, after producing Babe), the infectious tap-dancing penguin cartoon Happy Feet (06), the rigorously veracious medical drama Lorenzo's Oil (92), and a virtuoso remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in The Twilight Zone—The Movie (83). But his two previous Mad Max sequels, The Road Warrior (81) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (85) have become his most iconic movies. And although there are wonderful segments in each, they are also self-conscious pieces of mythmaking. For my money, they lack both the tabloid energy and seize-the-day freshness of the first Mad Max.
With Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller comes full circle, returning to his Mad Max roots and emerging as The Compleat Action Artist. He does make a lamentable wrong turn midway through, but his drollery, smarts and rock-opera sensibility permeate the movie. It's telling that Miller named this chapter of the Mad Max saga for Furiosa. His movie proclaims that sisterhood is powerful and proves that a heroine can be more exciting than a hero as a loner archetype. It’s unfortunate that the female-bonding part is conventional and even vaporous compared to the movie’s postapocalyptic world building. But when Theron glares into the War Rig's rearview mirror, what the audience sees is a bold feminist future.