“Out here, everything hurts. You want to get through this? Do as I say. Now, pick up what you can and run.” – Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron)
For some, the summer movie season is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Film-loving audiences have time (and time off) to gorge on as many options as they can – even while knowing that each menu item will satisfy a craving for only so long before they prepare to chew on the next thing. The meaty dishes, ones that may help their chefs earn stars, aren’t on their mind: those meals are for the autumn. And there’s little chance one will take a chance on trying the (cultural) vegetables.
The critical expectations for summer movies are rarely high, yet no high-octane adventure in recent memory received such an ebullient reaction as Mad Max: Fury Road. To the dozens of mainstream and alternative critics who embraced the film upon its May release, watching the film was akin to a full stuffing at the biggest buffer table. The ingredients were less processed, meaning the mayhem had an emphasis on practical effects instead of computer-generated ones. The calories weren’t as empty, meaning that gender issues – not something that often takes significance in a $150 million spectacle – provoked as much enthusiasm as the action sequences. The chef was also an unlikely champion: the film’s director, 70-year-old George Miller, hadn’t directed an action movie since the third film in the series. (That one came out in 1985.)
But upon seeing the two-hour thrill ride at a preview screening in May, I didn’t bite. The action sequences felt more exhausting than exhilarating, while too many of the characters were vaguely defined. It was hard to get swept up in the effusive acclaim. It was just as hard to meet the surprised stares of others who basked in the glow of the R-rated adventure and couldn’t understand why I shrugged off a film heralded as an action classic for the ages.
As my plan for The Balcony outlined last week, the reviews and columns I want to write will come from an original perspective. What better way to kick off this refurbished blog than to challenge a popular film of near-unanimous love among cinephiles? Upon hearing that Fury Road was getting an IMAX release this week – one it didn’t get initially in theatres, thanks to the saturation of Marvel superheroes – I made a note of revisiting the film on a massive screen. Unfortunately, that release didn’t make it to Montreal’s high-format auditoriums. Alas, I rented the film and watched it again on DVD, poised and prepared to find the same problems.
To my pleasant surprise, Fury Road was a much finer film than I remember. In fact, I heartily recommend it, even to filmgoers who normally wouldn’t consider seeing a movie that, in simplest terms, is two hours of fiery road rage. Some of the same problems subsisted on a second viewing, but the spectacle and situations resonated more – even when viewed on an exponentially smaller screen. It makes sense that I found the salvation others were already afforded when consuming the film on a 17-inch screen. Fury Road actually works better as a small film driven by contained storytelling than as no-holds-barred entertainment.
In this installment, we return to the oil-deprived wasteland that set Miller’s earlier tales of diesel and distress. Max, played by a terse Tom Hardy, is a man reduced to a single instinct: survival. Even before his titular name emblazons onscreen, Max is captured by the War Boys, enslaved young men caked in white whose sole purpose is to serve their master, the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Immortan Joe reigns over the Outback, starving the masses.
The vicious oppressor also wants to control the region’s oil, and so he sends out the trusted Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to bring back gasoline. But Furiosa has a different plan, having rescued Immortan Joe’s five young wives – one of whom is nearing childbirth – from the ruler’s lair. Her sights are on “The Green Place,” a utopia she remembers from her childhood that she hopes can be a refuge for the Wives. But as soon as Immortan Joe realizes Furiosa has abandoned the main road, the chase is on.
Instead of throttling into his own adventure, Max Rockatansky rides shotgun: at first as the baggage for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the War Boy in charge with protecting him; then, as a passenger to aid Furiosa and the Wives. Hardy’s drawl makes some of his dialogue hard to distinguish – and the film does a scattershot job of outlining what’s at stake for him. But, despite having Max’s name in the title, the adventure actually belongs to Theron’s Furiosa, brusque without being brutal, capable of fierce strength and tenderness.
Much has already been made of Fury Road‘s feminist slant. (The Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler was a consultant to the film.) As summer blockbusters go, it is a turn in the right direction. The protagonist is a woman who yearns to rescue others from an abusive patriarchy. The journey belongs to the women, while Immortan Joe’s ragtag circus army, in their impressively decked out rattle cars, features a gang of characters whose prime purpose, ultimately, is to parody machismo masculinity. There’s an acrobat who provides the electric soundtrack to the adventure: his guitar doubles as a flamethrower. Even more rumbling music comes courtesy of a band of War Boys drumming in a truck whirring alongside the main chase. (What initially registers as awe soon turns to parody: Immortan Joe must like hearing his own soundtrack accompany him on the road.)
Beyond characterization, Fury Road also defies the typical summer movie in its plotting. Often, the central conflict wraps up the whole world: superheroes will need to save humanity from a bloodthirsty villain, for instance. Here, one character sums up the stakes of the near-two-hour chase with a shrug: “All this for a family squabble.” Meanwhile, routine exposition can sink zippy blockbusters, but Miller’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris) is taut and deflects the niceties of getting to know the characters. We are left trying to figure out the sexual politics of this arid land for ourselves. (The same goes for names. Max only tells Furiosa his name shortly before the end credits roll. When they begin rolling, we also find out the actual names of the Wives he escorted through the Outback.)
Miller’s adventure is the most memorably taut of this summer’s blockbusters, but its action sequences are actually among its least interesting qualities. For all the attention the film received for its frenetic, prolonged chase scenes, they do become more exhausting as the climax approaches. If the writers had traded just five pages of road rage for a few more scenes with the characters on the run, Fury Road could have had more dramatic weight. Nevertheless, these dazzling chases have plenty of juice, and you can almost hear Miller panting behind the camera, hoping to keep the energy up.
Crisply edited, the action sequences are perhaps most interesting for the ingenuity of the cars on display. Some have contraptions for slicing and dicing, while others come equipped with a teeter-totter-like device to help its passengers spring outward. Still, there are noticeable patches where the movements are presented in a slightly accelerated speed, as if the editor wanted to fast-forward through the scene. While the jittery energy is sometimes invigorating, it also comes off as silly – especially when one considers how oddly the vigor meshes with the sobering feminist manifesto also present. It is telling that the most impactful moment of violence in the film comes in a more grounded setting, as Max and Furiosa brawl at first meet, stuck in the middle of the desert, while continuously switching in positions of dominance.
Mad Max: Fury Road was advertised as a high-octane fiesta far more interested in how its characters drive than being character-driven. However, its triumph lies in its taut storytelling, its bold (if not breakthrough) anti-patriarchy plotline and its attention to the performances. Theron and, to an extent, Hardy, find the rhythms of their characters without submitting to a screenwriter’s hackneyed expositions. The film isn’t quite the action-packed spectacular that was recently crowned the year’s best film by the International Federation of Film Critics. Still, for a splashy summer buffet, that a film found some guts in gravitas is more than good enough.