How soon is too soon to declare a movie a classic? Is it ten years? Five years? Two years? How about one hour after the first screening?
Time will tell, but right now I believe that Mad Max: Fury Road is one for the ages. It is a masterclass in action filmmaking, specifically how to tell story through action. The plot of the movie is so simple that there’s almost no difference between its synopsis and its longline. After fleeing a post-apocalyptic cult, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) teams up with a group of escaping sex slaves as they are chased across the wasteland but the cultists and their allies. Behind that deceptively simple premise, though, lies a treasure trove of visual storytelling, rich character arcs, and important thematic statements, all played out in the context of a 120 minute car chase featuring a minimal amount of dialogue.
Let’s start with the action. As you probably know, it’s not enough just to have cool things happening on screen; for an action scene to be effective, every single moment needs to be telling its own miniature story that ties in to the larger story at play. Unfortunately, the prevailing trend of the 21st century has been to simply show a lot of repetitive action while shaking the camera a whole bunch to disorient the audience. That’s the opposite of good action. Good action should always be clearly communicated to the audience. We want to see what’s going on and what it reveals about our characters and the story they’re a part of. Mad Max: Fury Road not only features spectacularly directed action, but it thumbs its nose at other action films by using its action to convey all the essential information. We’re introduced to most of the major characters through action, we learn about the nature of this weird cult through action, and most of the major character turns come in the context of action scenes. It’s things like a cultist spraying silver paint over his mouth before sacrificing his life to take out an enemy, or a character handing a rifle to someone else as a symbolic gesture of trust.
For a movie that’s light on plot, it sure has a lot of things to say, particularly about feminism. On the most basic level it’s a film about abused women trying to escape an oppressive, hyper-masculine society, only to find that this is an endless pursuit with their oppressors constantly on their tail. It’s a cult that worships the automobile, harvests the blood of its conquered foes, and whose highest ambition is to die a warrior’s death and be welcomed to the gates of Valhalla. Oh, and they have a big rig with war drums and an electric guitar that shoots fire. Their leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), is sickly, and ancient looking, but is fueled by rage and hatred and the need to oppress. It’s an old, white man, leading younger white men (note: the cult’s army of war boys are all painted white) in a fanatical religious crusade of oppression, and is aided by other white men who produce gasoline and guns. If that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is.
Beyond that, the major character arcs in the film also revolve around feminist ideals. Max is in it for himself. He’s a loner who doesn’t need anyone else’s help, and though he’s also trying to escape from the cult, he doesn’t want to get involved with these women’s plight, and frankly doesn’t care. He doesn’t hate women nor is he trying to oppress them, but it’s not his fight. As he’s forced into an allegiance with them, though, he begins to better understand and sympathize with their plight. In many ways, Max’s arc in this movie is his journey to becoming a feminist, learning to get past his own issues and hangups and fight for these oppressed people.
But the interesting wrinkle is that these women don’t really need Max’s help, and honestly, the movie isn’t really Max’s story. Despite being the titular character, and the audience’s point of identification, this is really the story of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). The story is all about her quest for freedom, and though Max has a significant arc of his own, he’s mostly just a supporting player in her story. Unlike Immortan Joe’s sex slaves, Furiosa was born outside of the cult and remembers what it was like before she was captured. She tries to escape her oppressors and run far away, but she underestimates the ferocity of this oppression and how they’ll stop at nothing to defeat her. Her arc is about realizing this truth and what she’s willing to do to confront it. It’s also interesting (read: exciting) that Immortan Joe’s five wives – the sex slaves he uses to sire healthy children amid the sickness of the wasteland – all have interesting, meaningful arcs of their own. They’re not just passive damsels in distress, and they all react to the situation in different ways, but ways that all feel honest and human.
The other most important arc in this story is that of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), but there’s not a whole lot I’m willing to say about that one while we’re in the territory of avoiding spoilers. Suffice it to say, he’s another interesting, complex character, and this may be a career best performance for Hoult.
The amazing thing, though, is that all of this complexity is not conveyed through grand speeches or lengthy dialogues, but through an extended car chase, punctuated with intimate character moments. And the action is stunning. I often cite the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark as being one of the greatest action sequences of all time, and Fury Road feels like George Miller took that scene and expanded it to feature length. In every frame of the movie, there is something spectacular to see, and despite its wasteland setting, the movie is dripping with color. This isn’t some murky, brown mess, but a bright, colorful, visually extraordinary film. There are so many weird little details in this movie that just exists without Miller feeling the need to explain or even call attention to them. The Citadel in Fury Road feels a little like Barter Town in Beyond Thunderdome, but it’s much stranger and far less concerned with explaining itself. All the context we get for the Citadel comes, again, through action, rather than exposition.
Mad Max: Fury Road is both a smart and complex feminist parable and a jaw droppingly excellent action film. It does so much right that you wonder why so many other films do it so wrong. This is a movie I think we’re going to be talking about for a long time.