In rare cases, a film can sustain itself without the complex narrative structures or near-constant dialogue audience members have come to expect. If the world-building is specific, the performances strong, and the vision grand, one can walk away out of the theater almost entirely satisfied and eager for more.
Such was my experience with Mad Max: Fury Road, technically the fourth movie in the iconic, post-apocalyptic series helmed by George Miller. One need not have seen any of the other films to understand or appreciate Fury Road, though. This is a two-hour, wildly creative onslaught of batsh*t insane action set pieces, connected by the depressing, lived-in reality of a world both foreign and all too familiar.
Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, Fury Road has risen to the top of the summer blockbuster heap, unlikely to be dethroned by any subsequent releases (at least in quality). But this isn’t your typical air-conditioned, watch-things-blow-up excursion to the theater; scripted with an emphasis on the surreal and strange, with a visual language and dialect all its own, Fury Road is a wild ride made all the stronger by its differentiation from the summer glut.
Set in an orange-brown waste where water and oil are the only currencies that matter, the action of the film unfolds around Max (Tom Hardy, above), an outlaw plagued by visions of his long-deceased family who is immediately captured by the white-powdered war boys of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, below right). Keeper of the Citadel, an oasis of sorts among the ragged dunes, Joe is an old man empowered by the water he keeps locked away from thousands of radiation-ravaged poor.
As Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s chief commanders, revs up her War Rig—a decked out, masterfully-rendered semi—for an oil-gathering expedition, Max is locked away. He becomes a human “blood bag” (it’s exactly what it sounds like) for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe’s exhausted war boys, on the mend in a cave reminiscent of an opium den.
Furiosa is harboring a secret cargo, though; she’s stolen Immortan Joe’s Five Wives, beautiful women the leader has selected for impregnation. As soon as she and the Wives veer off course in their war rig, Joe and his massive band of cars and trucks are on her tail, with Nux at the lead and Max—now strapped to the front of his fired-up vehicle—still supplying a steady flow of blood.
That’s all you should really know about Fury Road going in, and we’ve only recapped the first fifteen minutes. The rest of the film takes place across the sprawling desert, one giant chase punctuated with loss, ruined expectations, and explosive bouts of intense, fast-moving violence.
Utilizing real vehicles made new with exposed engines, massive speakers (like the ones above), and sharp spikes, director Miller ups the ante in the action genre, shooting wild stunts largely without CGI. The immediacy of the violence—with stellar sound design and mix—is startling and thrilling. Imagine if every action sequence in a film took place at high speeds, in vehicles where the characters hang, dangle, or perch above, not fearing the death that seems so imminent to our eyes: now you’ve got Fury Road.
Each individual scene crackles with a real wit and sense of humor, too; the circumstances might be dire, but Miller doesn’t take himself, or these characters, too seriously. Refreshingly, the action sequences are expertly choreographed. There’s no confusion about who is who or why they are doing what they are doing. Intention is stark and bold in this world; there’s little time for shifting allegiance, and Miller dispatches with exposition—Why exactly is that person on their side now?—with a remarkable lightness of touch.
Though Fury Road lives and dies on its insanely well-crafted action—and the chases and car-born battles really do continue to build in intensity for its entire runtime—the most exciting pieces of the film are those that are innate to its particular time and place. The hellish setting is imbued with such specificity of culture, so many tics and beats that work just right, that you’ll come away feeling a great deal more than the limited emotional content would initially suggest.
From the outset, odd character choices and strange, vivid visuals are left unexplained. Immortan Joe has dust fanned on to his sun-ravaged, boil-covered back and his sidekick just happens to be an almost completely CGI-created wheelchair-bound, bearded man with the body of a newborn child; these details are somehow relegated to the sidelines, lacking all importance save for the fact that they stand out so strongly amidst a pool of other quirky visual and character flourishes. The narrative avoidance—it is so blatantly ignored that that is the only way I can describe these moments—adds to the overall understanding that this world is a harsh one, where everyone, be they rulers, war grunts, or the impoverished lower class, are afflicted.
Miller’s quite particular vision extends to his screenplay (co-written by Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) as well. After Max’s initial narration, the film’s dialogue devolves into grunts, whispers, and explanations spoken in a language reminiscent of english but noticeably changed. The lingo has been altered for an altered version of our planet: Furiosa and the Five Wives are headed for “the green place,” almost none of the talk about the vehicles themselves utilizes language we’d understand, and the War Boys discuss their “chrome destiny” and visions of Valhalla, the afterlife.
These rather silly notions wouldn’t gain the traction they do, or come across as the norm in the world of Mad Max, if the actors weren’t all in. Hardy expertly tracks Max’s ascent out of utter madness, his simple nods and grunts evolving into genuine affection for his traveling companions, particularly Furiosa. And while the film bares his name, it is Theron’s performance that stands out: it’s one of steely resolve and painful memory, making Furiosa the most well-rounded character in Fury Road. There isn’t an ounce of camp in her Sigourney Weaver-esque power-woman role; rather, she keeps Furiosa at an even keel, almost never losing her cool until a particularly upsetting moment drives her over the edge.
Furiosa becomes, in fact, the figurehead for what amounts to quite the feminist post-apocalyptic thriller. She, along with the raucously-portrayed Five Wives—each with their own unique character traits and biting resentment toward the loathsome Immortan Joe—form a chorus of women stretching outside the bounds of expectation. Though they could easily be sexualized, given that they are essentially sex slaves, the model-pretty Five Wives are instead defiant, genuinely angry, and strangely thoughtful, caring for each other, Furiosa, and eventually Max as well. They provide the emotional beats of the film, and their camaraderie stands in stark contrast to a world and people slowly slipping away.
Their relationship is yet another zany cherry atop Fury Road‘s berserk sundae. Each sticky element, always on the verge of “too much” territory, eventually coheres. You might wonder how, when little is explained and emotional vulnerability is in short supply. For this viewer, despite having spent only two hours traveling Fury Road, it all made sense: each odd character, bit of lingo, or insane stunt felt like it could only be in this film, itself a glorious, non-stop mess. With filmmaking this confident, George Miller and co. make a horrendous apocalypse look, sound, and feel pretty damn awesome.
What’d you think of Mad Max: Fury Road? Let me know in the comments below!