action Charlize Theron feminism Friday, May 22, 2015Rob Samuelson
Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Rating: Five stars out of five.
Available in theaters now.
When I left the theater after seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, my first thought was, “So that's what it would be like to see Buster Keaton and Fritz Lang get freaky on peyote in a desert with GWAR.” Co-writer-director George Miller takes the templates those two great directors laid in classics like The General and Metropolis and builds them to a glorious crescendo of moving parts, death defying feats, and distrust of the powerful in society. The cars at the center of this gasoline-heavy series are decked out to look like hedgehogs and makeshift tanks, revving to top speed. Wild, sickly, deformed warriors throw explosive javelins. Taking a cue from the Moors, these tribalistic men play huge drums and flame-throwing guitars to unnerve their opponents into making false moves. Stunt people flop around on gigantic metronomes to spar in a vehicular ballet while the heroines and hero trudge along, survival seemingly always just out of their grasp, let alone comfort, peace and plenty.
The level of practical technique on display in this film, essentially a two-hour chase sequence with a few short pauses for character- and world-building, is baffling. Miller only resorts to CGI as an enhancer, sprinkled in judiciously, basically only to paint backgrounds and when he wants to kill someone cinematically without doing the same thing to a poor stunt person in reality. It's meat-and-potatoes filmmaking we don't see. I'm not talking here about “they don't make them the way they used to,” like when Miller made The Road Warrior, but period. This is next level stuff. The intricacies of Miller's action sequences bring to mind images of spinning plates while juggling a set of bowling balls and a few swords tossed in for good measure, all while riding a unicycle after a fifth of whiskey and a bag of hallucinogens. Everything is done with such precision, such careful planning and coordination, but an in-practice looseness to appear improvisational and Keaton-level fearless, as to make Fury Road's action a game changing achievement in itself.
But then we look at this mythic world Miller has created. The “half lifes,” milk maidens, and parched citizens of the Citadel at the film's center are nightmarish monsters yet recognizable as the undesirables our society sweeps under the rug. We see cultural structures from our own world stretched to absurd lengths and decorated with ghastliness to express a Lang-like distrust in centralized power. The Citadel is a giant machine that runs on the labor of these malnourished inbreds to prop up a dictator, one of cinema's most vile antagonists, the mechanically masked Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe's slipping in his old age, his skin more rash than dermis, but the productions to make him appear as powerful as ever still work thanks to his literal, elevation-based detachment from the people he rules and promises of religious glory in an afterlife – the totalitarian handbook. This deceit and greed extends to his search for his namesake, immortality, by taking the beautiful women still left in this desolated world and making them his “wives” (re: breeding machines).
But Immortan Joe can't control his wives' minds. They hatch a plan to escape with the help of Charlize Theron's eternally motivated Furiosa, far more the protagonist of Fury Road than Mad Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, still terrific in perturbed survivalist mode, an “I'm not even supposed to be here today” chip on his shoulder). This is where the thematic greatness of the film comes into play. Many of the essays published about the feminism in Mad Max: Fury Road focus on an ongoing argument being made for feminism, but the argument has already been won in this movie's eyes. Miller's story is so matter-of-fact about these women, especially Furiosa, being the drivers of heroism, being capable of dismantling the corrupting segments of society in order to build something better, and doing it all in explosively entertaining fashion. They don't really have to prove themselves to the audience, let alone Max, of their inherent worth as human beings. There are no pandering, hand-holding moments of, “Look, ladies can be cool/powerful/smart/funny, too!” They simply are those things with no wink-wink, nudge-nudge cinematic tricks. They are people, flawed and terrified, sometimes weak, given the circumstances, and they make their way with grace and of course some luck. They are oppressed like the rest of the Citadel, and their self awareness is what powers the plot to fix this unequal society. The act of not questioning their capabilities in this regard, beyond the obvious stakes of “will they survive this hellacious chase?” is the real special thing Miller does with this film. It is one of the purest expressions of the inclusive thing also being completely in harmony with what it takes to create memorable, worthwhile characters.
Furiosa and the wives can't remake society without some ghastly sausage making. Luckily for us, that process is less disgusting than filled with pure, visceral thrills on a level previously unseen in action filmmaking. Mad Max: Fury Road is one for the ages, folks.