A brisk, efficient masterwork from George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road is big, blaring moviemaking done right. This 2015 motion picture is the fourth entry in the Mad Max series and one of the best outings of the year. It has ties to the western and to exploitation cinema, but it’s also very much its own high-octane beast.
Miller and cinematographer John Seale keep things moving at an impossible clip, with tons of ground-level shots carrying the mechanisms of the Mad Max universe as roaring brutes streaming across the dead landscape. Seale actually came out of retirement, working with Miller’s ideas for a quick-cutting, centre-focused look that encapsulates all the desperation of the survival story.
Things begin with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) captured by the army of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the despotic leader of an army of War Boys. Max is made a “universal blood donor” and tasked with fuelling Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) takes off in the War Rig to handle a mission for gasoline, she veers off course and Immortan Joe leads his army in hot pursuit.
Furiosa guns it on her way to the Green Place, a supposed safe place from her childhood, and she’s got some precious cargo. After a battle along the road, Max reluctantly joins Furiosa and tries to help. There is more trouble along the road, however, with Immortan Joe roaring along and other militant forces trying to stop the War Rig from reaching its destination.
Mad Max: Fury Road paints a picture of the future of despair. It’s hard to argue with Miller’s vision, with the state of things being what they are. Humanity has been watching the planet burn, watching oppressive corporations take hold without so much as a hiccup. In this cinematic land, young men are thrust into battle with promises of Valhalla ringing in their ears – all in the service of Immortan Joe.
The bad guy requires slave labour to run his operation. He releases small amounts of water at a time, telling his horde of subjects not to get “addicted to it” because they won’t know how to handle themselves when it’s gone. He seeks out sources of gasoline and hoards Mother’s Milk, hoping to maintain his life-force through having the Wives give birth to his offspring.
Imperator Furiosa is the wrench in his plans and Max is along for the ride, more helper than hero. Theron’s character has the moral drive, the desire to help the women of the future do more than produce babies for some toothy warlord. She knows her machines and pilots the War Rig through hell, with the hope of emerald heaven lingering just barely in the distance.
That these elements are shown rather than told through hulking exposition is to Miller’s credit as a director. He manages that most Hitchcockian of touches in his understanding of film as a predominantly visual medium, communicating more in the looks exchanged between characters than a dozen half-assed quips would ever manage.
Relationships evolve in the midst of blazing, blaring battles. They have to. Furiosa and Max have to learn to work together as the War Rig rattles along. They have to put aside their natural suspicions. They have to toss guns back and forth, share the load. They have to communicate with facial expressions and grunts. They have to leave most of their words in the dust.
The trick of Mad Max: Fury Road is its simplicity. Viewers perhaps now raised on farcically complicated plots involving teams of heroes may find themselves adrift in Miller’s economy of story. He casts things from one point to another, darting a straight line to his destination without any farting around. This admirable touch is spiced by a few extra shades, like a budding romance or some surprising comedy.
The absurdity of war is a big factor, what with thumping drums and a guitarist (iOTA) grinding it out to power the War Boys. And Immortan Joe requires the unflinching zeal of his young men, with their cries of “witness” when they’re about to throw their lives away providing tools to face his bloody hunger. Things carry on in an irrational parade across the void.
Everyone is mad in some way here, but the trick is in finding those shreds required to survive. Furiosa leads the charge, single-minded in her moral pursuit and inspired by those women who came before her. Max hitches his wagon to her star, just like the audience, and often finds himself holding on for dear life. It’s the only thing to do, after all: in a world without sense, purity of purpose is queen.