Review: Mad Max: Fury Road
At one point in the last act of Mad Max: Fury Road there is a shot like something out of the far corner of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The land is gray and muddy, a glimpse of moisture in endless miles of desert. But this is no oasis; the air teems with crows, and the natives of this landscape are dressed in cloaks, walking on towering four-legged stilts. The film regards them for a moment, allowing us to take in the sinister beauty of what we are looking at. Whether or not the image had anything to do with the plot was not relevant to me at that moment: it was an image astonishing and completely new. I love when a movie offers me something I have never seen before. Mad Max: Fury Road offers such images like a buffet table, if that buffet table had wheels and a V8.
This is director George Miller’s fourth time in this world. Fury Road is so assured in the story it wants to tell, so relentlessly spectacular in a way that shames what we have come to accept as “spectacle” from our movies, that I wonder if the first three were simply an elaborate dress rehearsal for this one. I have long considered the ending of The Road Warrior my favorite movie chase scene. Trying to pick the best chase scene from Fury Road is fruitless; the chase in this movie begins in the first act and never lets up until the last scene. Tom Hardy is a splendid choice to take over the titular role. He has a weary charisma that always makes itself known, no matter how dark the material gets. But the real star of this film, in both plot and presence, is Charlize Theron. Her character, Imperitor Furiosa, is the film’s primary dynamic character, and the heartbeat of the film’s story. Max is an agent in her arc; he knows what he is about, but she is on the final chapter of a lifelong search for redemption. Her goal: save the five women enslaved for breeding by Immortan Joe, a hulking, pasty dictator who controls what must be the only water supply in a reasonable radius.
Immortan Joe wields control over a small empire; sickly, brainwashed young men called War Boys fight for him with the promise that he will lead them to Valhalla when they die. Children pound endlessly on drums to announce his presence, when he makes appearances for show from his lair within a towering desert cliff. In the canyon below, thousands of his subjects wait in desperation for the small amount of water he rations them, as he warns them not to get addicted to it. Miller has always excelled at building worlds on the fly, laughing off the idea of stopping for exposition. He makes full use of the screen as a canvas; the details, like the moment I mentioned in the opening here, never stop coming. Every new detail fills out another corner of this wild world he he crafted. Every detail adds to the story. At one point, Nux, a conflicted War Boy played by a splendid Nicholas Hoult, mentions his friends Barry and Harry. When asked who they are, he points to two lumps on shoulder. Believe me, knowing what we know about the world he has lived in, this ends up being far more heartbreaking than gross.
There are many little moments like that, flashes that tell us something about the people in this world. One moment that made me smile was an exhcnage between two of the women Furiosa is protecting: one of them (named The Dag) is praying furiously during a heated battle, using gestures from just about every known religion and I’m sure some that had since popped in the film’s universe. Another (named
Cheedo the Fragile I was mistaken; it was, in fact, the extraordinarily named Toast the Knowing in this scene) asks, confused, who exactly she is praying too. “Whoever will listen,” Dag says.
These days it seems there is a general acceptance that lots of action must come at the expense of good characters. That, I think, underestimates how much story you can tell through action. There is a scene where Max and Furiosa come across a woman suspended in a wooden tower, crying for help. Consider their respective reactions, and how much we can learn from the characters in just a few seconds: Max’s hesitation to help her comes from years of pragmatic survival and instinct. And the way Furiosa brushes off his concerns, it’s immediately apparent that she is not simply listening to her emotions; she clearly knows more about what is happening here than he does. This isn’t showy writing and acting, but it is good writing and acting, the sort of quickfire storytelling that a film that moves as much as this one needs. And by god does it move.
This is truly relentless action, a story told in 360 degrees. Every angle by which one might infiltrate a moving truck is explored here, including from directly above. Considering the lack of aircraft in this world, that particular method is truly ingenious. The film’s finest art direction is saved for these chase scenes, as armies of chopped and reassembled vehicles pursue Max and Furiosa’s single big-rig. At one point early in the film, the chase is underway, and we see a vehicle with a band of drummers pounding away, unexpectedly providing the film’s score. At the front of this truck was a guitarist, faceless with a ghoulish mask, held in place by bungee cords, rocking power chords as storms of dust kick up around him. That, I thought, is something I have never seen before.