by Will Ross
The idea of the Lost Masterpiece is so pervasive in film discourse that sometimes it can be predictive, as it was for Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled production of Apocalypse Now, which seemed to promise both greatness and certain failure in the same breath (“Apocalypse Never”, the press deemed it). And if Gilliam gets to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, maybe he’ll f i n a l l y live up to Brazil (somehow, I doubt it, but the film is scheduled for production this summer, so we shall see).
But to the best of my knowledge, nobody was talking about Mad Max: Fury Road like a classic in chrysalis, or putting it on Best Movies You’ve Never Seen lists, or really giving it much attention at all. You would think that George Miller — who defined and perfected the post-apocalyptic action movie — returning to that field with his most ambitious project yet would send cinephiles into a storm of anticipation, especially since The Road Warrior's place in the action canon has only firmed up over the years. Maybe it’s because we don’t register action movies as potential masterpieces anymore; maybe the idea of career-best work lying ahead of Miller, a man whose focus has shifted over the years from epic mythmaking to dancing penguins, was a bit much to swallow.
Whether we paid attention or not, Fury Road had a grueling development — delayed, among countless other things, by an unusually flowery season in the Australian desert that forced the production to relocate to Namibia. There was no script. The actors weren’t happy on set, largely because there was no script. These are usually very bad signs, indications of a movie without a clear purpose or direction (in fact, they eerily mirror one of this era’s most reviled pieces of sci-fi action, Michael Bay’s Revenge of the Fallen). But it turns out they’re a result of a total refusal to compromise one of the most audacious epics of the digital era, of a film absolutely committed to not just include images that skirt impossibility, but to almost only include images that skirt impossibility.
The first: a man, shoddily dressed and standing next to a beaten-up V8 Interceptor, overlooking a totally barren desert. In voiceover, he tells us that his name is Max (Tom Hardy), that he is haunted by the face of his daughter and his failure to save her, and that this wasteland is a pretty fair representation of what war has made of the planet, while he eats a two-headed lizard. That’s not the first impossible image. The first impossible image comes about 30 seconds later, when that V8, racing to escape a small horde of pursuers, crashes in what seems to be an endless series of flips, tumbling straight towards the camera before stopping right next to the lens. It’s a heart-stopping piece of choreography, stunt driving, camera coordination, and post-production stitching. It’s also the least impressive piece of car action in a movie that has as many scenes with car action as it has without.
From here, things only worsen for poor Max, who is fixed with an iron muzzle, tatooed, and designated a “universal blood donor” by his captors, the War Boys. Gaunt, fanatical soldiers who worship skull-symboled steering wheels and wear cocaine-white body paint in perpetuity, the War Boys are the military of the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The warlord rules the wasteland from the Citadel, a makeshift tower embedded in the rock face of a desert butte, and both placates and controls the starving populace below by dumping brief waterfalls from an apparently unlimited water supply onto them from far above, while he and his disciples enjoy the breast milk pumped from his captive women, morbidly obese and milked by machines.
Joe is an odd villain; he’s an old, out-of-shape man whose lower face is forever-obscured by a mask adorned with breathing tubes and buck-toothed horse teeth. To conceal his flab, he wears a translucent chest plate, molded with abdominal shapings, and a host of medals hinting at a military background in the pre-apocalypse. His cult of personality extends throughout the citadel, especially to the War Boys, who believe that dying for Joe in battle will earn them a place in Valhalla. It extends, that is, up until his “five wives” — a harem of sex slaves selected as “perfect” breeding candidates, whom Joe considers his prized possessions. As one of his generals, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), drives an armoured and weaponized tanker truck (a “war rig”) to the neighbouring Gas Town to procure fuel from its refinery, she suddenly swerves left into the open landscape, and within seconds Joe realizes that Furiosa has absconded with his entire harem and is making a break for it. A chase begins, and it does not end for the better part of two hours.
It’s a complex, microcosmic society whose origins and workings are easily communicated to the audience in a matter of minutes, exclusively through visual means. What’s extraordinary about the world carved out by Miller, his cowriters (Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris), and production designer Colin Gibson is not just its originality, nor that it is fully defined and comprehensible to the audience in a matter of minutes, but that it is so instantly graphically iconic that it fixes a permanent place in the mind and stays there. It’s also politically potent: military despotism, artificial resource scarcity, patriarchal domination, and dynastic oligarchy all receive an immediate outline and comment in these moments, all without the story stalling on the main attraction that lies ahead.
After Furiosa turns left, a small army of vehicles gives chase, and it is here that the production design goes from wholly brilliant to a seemingly impossible work of genius. The cars of Fury Road, you see, are all both fully-functioning vehicles and fully-bedecked works of sci-fi character excess: some are fixed with hundreds of spikes, others rigged with boarding polevaults; one even features a slope of taiko drummers riding one side, and on the other, a bungee-corded, red-jumpsuited guitar-shredder spewing flames from his instrument’s double-neck and sound from the wall of amps behind him as he careens through the wasteland at a hundred klicks an hour. That this piece of heavy-metal overkill is both a consistent source of comic relief and totally believable in the context of Immortan Joe’s culture is yet another testament to Gibson and his design team.
Then, in very short order, the fighting begins, and cars jostle Furiosa’s rig and fall over and explode all over the place. Max, who has been rigged to the hood of one of a War Boy's car as a kind of blood-bag ornament, is placed in the thick of it, and after much fighting, distrust, and shifting of loyalty, he finds himself riding alongside Furiosa and the former harem, and his interests inch from self-preservation to genuine concern for his accidental allies.
This arc should be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Road Warrior, and its repetition here (in broad strokes) should also be familiar to anyone familiar with Mad Max’s inconsistent timeline. Miller’s approach to franchise continuity is mostly pragmatic, a refreshing change of pace from Hollywood’s standard practice of pandering to fanboy expectations of literal cohesion. Sometimes, he uses it to call back to Mel Gibson’s adventures in the Wasteland: Max wears a leg brace alluding to a series-wide injury, a headbutt accentuated with a single white frame repeats the same technique in The Road Warrior, and a lightning-fast flashback montage includes an instant of a bug-eyed extreme close-up grabbed from the original Mad Max. But Miller also willingly discards or alters some backstory where it better suits his latest narrative, most notable of which is the change of Max’s child from a baby boy to a little girl, an alteration more in keeping with Fury Road’s focus on subjugated women.
The biggest shift between Fury Road and its predecessors in this respect is that this film moves emphatically into present tense. The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome were each bookended with narration from a witness to Max’s adventures, recalling him as an almost mythical figure and suggesting that he doesn’t occupy a single timeline, but is a sort of campfire story, to be revived in different permutations for each tale. This Max makes the difference clear from his very first line of forcefully here-and-now voiceover: “My name is Max”. Still, Max’s myth status is foregrounded, particularly in his regretful, hallucinatory flashbacks; Miller uses our knowledge of the character’s origins to flesh out the hints of backstory for this particular depiction of Max.
This ‘present tense’ approach applies elsewhere, giving the film a speed and scale in its carnage that is both more calibrated for the audiences of modern blockbusters and more suited for Miller squeezing every last bit of Movie he can out of 120 minutes. Other changes affect the blood-bathed road wars more intrinsically; gas and bullets aren’t quite so precious as they used to be in Max’s world (although the latter are much scarcer for the Imperator’s crew than they are for Joe’s marauders, who are allied to the self-explanatory Bullet Farmer).
Nonetheless, both parties expend an amount of gas and cars and bullet casings that is enormous by any post-apocalyptic standard. In the midst of this chaos, the escapees find themselves in bizarrely close repeated contact with an especially sickly and ardent War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), and it’s through this zealot that Miller begins to extend the full range of his humanism, for Nux is mocked and derided by his comrades and superiors alike for his weakness and frailty. So clumsy is Nux that he fails in kamikaze attempts multiple times, and has a crisis of faith: if Valhalla awaits those who have faith and die in service, but no amount of the former can accomplish the latter, what does that make the faithful? The answer, delivered in a scene that is as simple as it is surprisingly tender, lies at the dead center of the film’s conflict between the dangers of freedom and the comforts of subservience. Hoult’s performance is easily the most outwardly expressive of the cast, with expressions and body language that would feel at home in a Fritz Lang silent film. In spite of the understatement that every other major role brings to their part, this entirely works to make clear both the fevered devotion that governs Nux’s life, and the fundamental innocence and tragic redeemability of not just Nux, but by implication all the War Boys. It is perhaps the riskiest part in the cast, but Hoult pulls off the bumbling idolater without a false step.
Hardy and Theron’s trauma-hardened survivalists, on the other hand, require a much lighter touch, especially Hardy’s part, which has him spending roughly the first third of the film behind that muzzle, and hardly saying a word after that. But it’s all in the eyes. With them and, once the mask comes off, the rest of his face, Hardy accomplishes his arc from selfishness to selflessness almost entirely through his reactions to the things around him. It helps that his frazzled ingenuity and constant poor fortune also make him the funniest character in the movie against all odds (shades of Buster Keaton), which endears the audience to a man who, for a while, is otherwise a cold-hearted bastard.
Hardy and Hoult do excellent work, as do each of the five wives and many other bit players who sculpt complex personalities with minimal screentime, but of all the players, Theron handily takes the crown performance. Furiosa is at the center of the plot, and under her mask of her rugged competence (masks and concealments of the body and mind are a major motif), the crackshot driver bears everything that happens along the war rig’s way on her conscience. Theron plays this agony — along with a growing worry that her quest for personal redemption may only make things worse — across her face with each and every setback, until a crushing late-period discovery momentarily breaks her. Furiosa is, from the word go, the most valorous person in the Wasteland; the film’s thesis may well be found in the change in her rebellion’s motives and methods.
Fury Road’s ability to sketch terrific characters through implication and small pieces of history leaves it all the more time for action (though even in periods of downtime, the chase goes on; Miller makes sure to remind us that Joe and his War Boys are getting closer), and the action is nothing short of genre-defining. If there’s a film with more impressive stunt work and more perfectly structured battles imbued with such physical impact as this, please tell me, for the love of god tell me right now. This is complete car chase choreography (I believe Richard Wagner called it 'gesamtautounfall'), where the form of the film is pitched to precisely lay out the causes and effects of each fire-shrouded wreck, a tall order given that many scenes involve dozens of cars jockeying for the best spot to spike and shoot and flame Furiosa's tanker, and that there are so many moving pieces to map out for the puny limitations of human eyeballs. But map it out Miller does, with both the experience of a man who knows that blockbusters must engage with the sensibilities of a wide audience, and the wit of one who’s worked out how to rewrite action grammar regardless.
In fact, one of Miller’s cleverest gambits is his use of many of the modern cliches of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Miller motivates each and every aesthetic decision so well that one can’t imagine a better way to achieve his goals. How better to capture both the stark desolation and hyper-saturated harshness of the Namibian desert than with teal and orange? How to ensure that the action music will be heard and registered among all the engine noise and explosions, except with Zimmer-esque production and simplicity? How could Miller capture so many details of the chase and production design and history while maintaining a breakneck speed except with rapidly paced cutting?
Miller’s editing stratagem, executed by Margaret Sixel, deserves particular acclaim here. The choreography, spatial relations, and Sixel’s proficiency (amazingly, this is her first action film) in understanding the rhythms of the frequently undercranked footage are all action filmmaking par excellence, but what keeps it all comprehensible is Miller’s framing dogma, unseen in any of his other films, of centre-framing the vast majority of each shot's focal points. Because of this, no matter how quickly the film cuts from one moment in the action to the next, your eyes don't need to scan the screen to find what's important (it's right there in the middle, where you were already looking!) and so despite the rapid cutting the film feels less like a montage and more like a continuous torrent of images. Every shot allows you to look at the peripheral details on the left and right of the generous 2.35:1 frame if you wish (and have time!), but leads you back to the centre subject to prepare you for the next.
Among all this formal frenzy, Miller never drops the ball on what it all means for each of his characters. And, while many think-pieces have already proclaimed (or denounced) Fury Road's obvious feminist interests, "what it all means" is surprisingly difficult to wrap one's head around, let alone summarize. There's a lot to unpack in Joe's tyrannical rule, the nature and accountability of the brainwashed, the pains and responsibilities of rebellion and the uncertain future that always greets its success. This isn't a sprawling playground of ambiguous political allegory; Miller raises these issues from the perspective of a distinct ideology, yet that guiding ideology defies being easily packaged into a tidy set of 'isms.
In many ways, this resembles no recent film more than the late Aleksei Gherman’s Hard To Be a God, which also features an anti-hero in a squalorous ‘fallen world’, rendered with unrelenting intensity and seam-splitting minutiae. (What’s more, it too was only realized in a finished form after decades of planning, hustling, and setbacks, though Miller survived his opus's completion.) Unlike God, whose formal pyrotechnics draw so much attention to themselves (almost literally clogging the camera lens) that they render its already hazy narrative and politics opaque and obscure, Fury Road synthesizes production design, plot, character detail, and theme into each and every scene without one ever running interference on the others; plus, it has cars falling over. The function of any given beat is clear and simple, but often its effects ripple into many different parts of the film. Objects in particular take on shifting metaphorical significance as the plot develops, from Furiosa’s prosthetic robot arm to the blood transfusion tubing that Max never bothers ripping off. These objects reach back (to suggest the culture and events that would cause their existence, telling wholly unseen stories with their own contributions to the film's themes), they reach into the present (how do we deal with this object's implications right now) and they reach forward to their inevitable resolution, resolving every bit of backstory and plot that's been attached to them with all the mechanical satisfaction of a well-done action pay-off and all the intellectual and political thrust of any agitprop art film.
It is, by token of that, also as demanding as an agitprop art film — complete attention is mandatory to having a full-fledged experience, and it's futile to try absorbing all its nuances in one viewing. But there's an easily graspable interface here, and it gives the audience a framework to analyze and digest the myriad complications that Miller throws at them — which are too exhilarating to ever feel like work. (In all these respects and a few more, Fury Road recalls no film more than Buster Keaton's masterpiece The General.) This is much more than a satisfactory or even exemplary return to a vision that has already left an indelible impact on the cultural landscape. This is a film whose every pleasure is neatly woven into a seemingly limitless whole, an action movie that has its cake, eats it, and while it’s at it invents a totally new kind of cake that tastes as good as any cake ever made. It is a masterpiece, but more than that, it’s one that could have only come out of impossible ambition and adversity, and the fact that it is so excited to entertain us, and to change the action movie game, and to stand as a complex social statement, is more than enough grounds to fête Mad Max: Fury Road as the best action movie of its time.