Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

The light fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos, ruined dreams, this wasted land. But most of all, I remember the road warrior, the man we called Max. 
The Road Warrior
It seems so rare these days to see something truly new. Paradoxically, despite the fact that it resurrects an old franchise, that's exactly what we have in Mad Max: Fury Road. It brings back all I love about the first two installments, but with a strange and thought-provoking twist. It takes risks.

I've read not a single review, because I wanted my mind to be untainted by what people are saying. Some of the talk leading up to Fury Road makes it out to be a mindless action movie. Don't believe it. People say that about The Road Warrior, too. An action movie it may be, but mindless it's not. Yes, it's light on dialogue, but in movies it's possible, you know, to make actions speak. I'll try not to mention any spoilers in what follows, but I'm going to talk about various elements of the film, so you might want to go see it before reading, lest I taint your mind.

So, what's Fury Road all about, you ask? I'll tell you. It's about femininity. The whole thing, from beginning to end, is an exploration of what it means to be a woman, in all its biological messiness. I know, crazy, right? But there it is. Where The Road Warrior has a tanker full of sand (oops, spoiler alert), Fury Road has a tanker full of breast milk. Really. Max washes his bloody face in it. The pallid War Pups and War Boys slurp up bottles fresh from sedentary chattel slaves who, corpulent as prehistoric Venus figurines, sit in a row to be perpetually pumped like so many cows. (Late in the movie they play a singularly symbolic role.) This ownership of women is what drives the plot, for, whereas Beyond Thunderdome centers around a band of lost children, Fury Road follows the fortunes of a bevy of pregnant girls – cult leader Immortan Joe's Five Wives – escaping from slavery as breeders. Breast milk and water and blood – Max is branded as a universal donor – enter the plot again and again.

Themes of fertility aren't new to the series, of course. The Wasteland in which The Road Warrior takes place is freighted with its full mythological weight. But the concern there is more with male virility. Max enters the compound as a living source of potency, instantly drawing the inhabitants into his orbit and displacing Pappagallo (Daddy Rooster), who later in the film is injured close by the groin, reminiscent of the Fisher King. The other males in the compound are a gallery of failures – senile, crippled, conniving. The Warrior Woman and Big Rebecca have had to step up as fighters and leaders. On the other hand, the vermin besieging the compound correspond to a kind of male S&M nightmare (or fantasy, depending on your predilections), with Wez and his "armor bearer" the Golden Youth, the Lord Humungus (whose head looks like a giant pulsating testicle), Toady (who lives up to his name), and so forth. It also probes anxieties related to fatherhood. Max, whose infant son died in the first installment, is presented as a kind of "deadbeat dad" to the Feral Kid, underscored by the streak of white hair they share.

Fertility is the focus of Fury Road as well, but here the emphasis is more on bearing than begetting. We're presented with two extremes – a people in which women are treated as objects, and a people in which women are the only members. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads the girls from the former to the latter, only to find it a poisonous mud flat. Her Green Place has become another wasteland, and the last remaining seeds are preserved like relics by the surviving women with nothing to make them grow.

Tom Hardy makes an excellent Max – sometimes I forgot I wasn't watching Mel – but Max isn't the main protagonist. He's a main protagonist. He shares the spotlight with Furiosa, and is often overshadowed by her. I'm not sure yet if this is altogether successful, because the viewer's interest ends up being divided. I'll have to watch it a few times to really be able to judge. It is a Mad Max movie, you know, and that means that Max has to have enough to do. A related sore point is the fact that Max's legendary black V8 Interceptor is shown in all its glory for only a brief while – it was cruel, terribly cruel, to have it play so small a role!

Anyway, I think this division of interest between two protagonists is intentional, an attempt to forge one character out of two. In The Road Warrior, an Australian bobtail, or "two-headed" skink, sits in the foreground at one point, and I've always taken this as a reference to the role of the tanker as a decoy. Well, Fury Road opens with an actual two-headed lizard, a visual reference, perhaps, to the two-headed character of Max and Imperator Furiosa. The title, too, might be seen as a marriage of Furiosa and the Road Warrior.

Throughout Fury Road it's the women who inspire the men to act. At the beginning, Max is presented as a scavenger, a survivor, a blood bag. Shockingly (to me at least, an old Mad Max fan), he's compared visually with Johnny the Boy at one point, with the Defiant and Broken Victims at another. The first time his actions go beyond self-interest, it's because he's doesn't want to see Furiosa's strength and devotion go to waste. And the War Boy Nux who goes along for the ride, unwillingly at first, grows into a man through the ministrations of one of the girls. That's not to say the women are accessories. They hold their own, and then some. But in survival situations it's usually men who bear the brunt of the fighting, by biological necessity. Here we see that their strength is nothing without their sexual complements.

Blah blah blah. Did I mention that Fury Road has awesome stunts? My God, it has awesome stunts. Filmed in front of a green screen it was not. Imagine the chase scene at the end of The Road Warrior on steroids, roaring through canyons, mudflats, dune fields, salt flats, and a titanic dust storm, and that's this movie in a nutshell. (Apart from all the fertility stuff.) It's raw, and grimy, and bloody. For the space of two hours, you inhabit it. The bad guys are more delightfully bizarre than ever before, but Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, a.k.a. Toecutter) takes the cake.

On top of all that, it's one of the most visually beautiful movies I've seen in a while. The desert is a kind of poetry in George Miller's hands. He's a painter working with a palette of red and brown and blue. I'm so glad we got the chance to see what he's really capable of here.

Cf. this post, which has links to various thoughts on the topic of Max and his relatives.

ADDENDUM: It occurs to me that the Mad Max series might be seen as chronicling the abdication of men and the assumption by women of their traditional roles. In the first installment we enter a world in which the ideal of masculine heroism is starting to ring hollow, the line between law enforcer and lawless nomad is becoming blurred, and women and children are left defenseless. In The Road Warrior, we see that these women and children have stepped up to compensate for their absent or ineffectual husband- and father-figures. Next, the founder and ruler of Bartertown in Beyond Thunderdome is a woman (Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner), while the lost "feral children" have begun to form their own society.

Put in that context, Fury Road seems to rehash some of these themes while forming the next logical step in their development. The women rebel on their own account from their subjection but in the end the sexes are able to come to a mutual understanding on their new and more equal footing. Significantly, the next installment is to be titled Furiosa. Perhaps it will continue this arc.

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