When I first came out of Fury Road, I wasn’t sure what to think, nor did I know how the critics would respond to it. The critics spoke–and were nearly unanimous in their praise. But I knew I had to see it again for myself, to see if I would be swept up in the chorus of praise, or if, in sorrow, I would have to admit the film I had so longed to see, the film so many deemed a masterpiece, was in fact unworthy of its laurels.
But you see those five stars at the top of the page. You know how this story ends.
I’ll say it now–Fury Road is the best film in at least 18 months, and the best summer blockbuster in five years. I delighted at George Miller’s “mastermind” billing in the trailers, but it was absolutely justified. He draws on aspects of the original trilogy, from small touches (the little music box, for one) to primary themes–the damning social critique of Mad Max, the relentless brutality of The Road Warrior, and the post-apocalyptic grotesquerie of Beyond Thunderdome. Here, working with a budget far greater than the budgets of the originals combined, he has crafted a film which draws from and, in my opinion, exceeds them.
He, and an incredibly talented team, have made a masterpiece.
Spoilers, discussion of misogyny, violence, etc.
I present here my initial thoughts on the film, which I will amend with my subsequent impressions.
Ever since I shared the first trailer last July, my anticipation for Mad Max: Fury Road has mounted, in good part because Warner Brothers has mounted arguably the best advertising campaign I’ve seen since…well, possibly since I saw the first teaser for Inception before Inglourious Basterds. Trailer after trailer was rich with inventive, insane badassery, and when I got the chance to see the film a week early (thanks be to the Alamo Drafthouse), I jumped at it.
But, after such prolonged and intense anticipation, I don’t believe that one viewing is enough to determine my true feelings about the film. Coming out of it, I genuinely wondered what the critical and popular reception would be, The reviews have been almost a dream–rave after rave, praising the film for its invention, its thematic depth, its sheer excitement. Now, for the first (but not last) time, I must add my voice to the chorus and answer the question…was it worth the wait?
Or, for that matter, who knew a Mad Max film would be a better feminist blockbuster than a Joss Whedon film?
The world is in turmoil. A nuclear war of some kind has ravaged civilization, and Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), once a policeman, now roams the wilderness in his car, trying to escape not only those who try to rule the wasteland, but the ghosts of his past, who invade his mind with terrifying vividity. He is captured by the henchmen of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a warlord who controls a vast water supply which he cruelly restricts, and commands an army of devoted automotive warriors, most of whom are “Half-Life Boys”, radiation-riddled young men who seek glorious death in battle, hoping to reach the Valhalla Joe has promised them.
Joe’s Imperator (a kind of lieutenant) Furiosa (Charlize Theron) sets out for a nearby fuel source with a tanker truck, but on the way diverts from the main road; when Joe sees this, he has a revelation: Furiosa has freed Joe’s “wives”–young, healthy women Joe uses to bear him children–and is set on taking them to the idyllic “green place” of her youth. The enraged Joe sets off in pursuit with his men. Max, meanwhile, has been used a source of fresh blood for Half-Life Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who leaps at the chance to ride for–and die for–Joe, and Max is strapped to Nux’s car and they follow Furiosa in a wild chase–during which time we learn that Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Joe’s favorite wife, is very near to having a child.
The chase leads them into a dust storm, and many of Joe’s men are killed, but Max is able to prevent Nux from launching a kamikaze attack on Furiosa’s vehicle, and they crash. Awakening the next morning, Max finds Furiosa and the girls nearby, and demands their help, but after mutual suspicion and a lengthy fight between Max, Furiosa, and Nux (Max and Nux still being chained together), Max tries to set off on his own. He doesn’t get far, thanks to Furiosa’s anti-theft devices, and they agree to go together. When an attempted deal to secure safe passage goes wrong, a prolonged, multi-day chase ensues, and while Furiosa and all the wives save one make it to the home of Furiosa’s people, what they find there does not put an end to their quest.
One could sum up Fury Road perfectly by saying it is, in every way, shape, and form, a Mad Max film. I recently saw the first film, have seen the second film (and rewatched it in part several times since), and have seen about half of Beyond Thunderdome, and while I may not be an expert on the series, I notice how little has actually changed over 35 years. Yes, Fury Road has the budget to fully realize its vision (the first film especially looks fairly impoverished outside of the chase scenes), but “mastermind” George Miller (I do love that the studio credited him thus) has changed little about his approach; the same wild, inventive enthusiasm remains on display, and about the same go-for-broke smash-up style of automotive mayhem.
More to my point, though, is that Miller does not betray the series’ archetypal nature here. The first two films especially are rich neither in plot nor character; Max is a fairly simple hero, a haunted knight in battered armor, and the story is his conflict with the decaying world he lives in, backed by a general desire to do right, as he does in all of the films. But as he narrates in the opening moments of this film, he has “been reduced to a single instinct–survive.” Max, despite the casting of Hardy, is not much deeper here than he was in, say, The Road Warrior, and despite the added thematic concerns (which I’ll get to in a bit), the story is about as simple: bad guy, good guy with a plan, Max gets pulled into good guy’s plan, violence ensues.
And here lies perhaps my chief complaint with the film: as much as I respect Miller’s commitment to the style of the previous films–and God knows, this film did not need any of the clichés of modern blockbuster cinema–he should have cut the film to match those earlier films as well. The original trilogy averaged around 100 minutes apiece, but Fury Road, with credits, is a solid 120 minutes, and even the grade-A action on display wears just a little thin when the story is this determinedly archetypal (some might say “simplistic”). I would not dare say Fury Road is ever boring, but as good as it is now, tightened up it might well be better.
I take this back completely. Second time around, it didn’t feel too long or like too much at all. The action is relentless, yes–though I think calling it “a two-hour chase scene” is a touch misleading–but it doesn’t get stale. The breathers are perfectly placed, and are never included for their own sake. It’s an uncommonly exciting film.
And it’s worth noting that Hardy, who’s one hell of an actor (I’m damned anxious to see his Kray twins film this year), does not get to display the full range of his talent here. His portrayal of Max is more haunted, more traumatized by the horrors he has endured; Mel Gibson’s Max was numbed, but Hardy’s Max is tormented, and he does do a fine job portraying that torment, as well as his ultimate sense of renewal as he helps Furiosa and the girls, but compared to a role like Ivan Locke (another car-based film), it’s not that much of a stretch for him.
He really is pretty good. No, he’s not Locke good, but he is entirely convincing–he makes especially good use of his voice, which is especially raspy here. A stoic performance such as this can go wrong–just look at Only God Forgives–but Hardy pulls it off.
Theron has more to work with (she has a good deal more dialogue than Max, and as much if not more screentime), but I’m not totally sure how I feel about her work. On the one hand, she’s quite convincing in the action scenes, both the driving scenes and the hand-to-hand combat (that three-way fight between her, Hardy, and Hoult is really well done). In the dialogue scenes, she’s a bit more uneven, and doesn’t always seem comfortable with the stylized argot of the film’s world; the scene where she calls gas “guzzoline” feels especially awkward. For the most part she still does a fine job, I just need that second viewing to really sort out my feelings.
I’m still not totally decided on how I feel about her. Again, her action scenes are extremely convincing–it’s her delivery that sometimes feels just a bit off. Granted, that’s in keeping with the tone of the film–the dialogue and its delivery is deliberately stylized–but there are a couple of moments that aren’t 100% there. That’s nitpicking, though; for the most part, I’m quite happy with her performance.
Perhaps the best performance in the film is Hoult’s. I had initially hoped he would contend for my Supporting Actor award, but watching the film was afraid he was killed when Max crashes his car. Rather, he survives (he’s pretty indestructible–as with the other characters, excessive durability is arguably the film’s largest concession to modern blockbuster inanities), and tries to prove himself worthy to Joe, but fails, and (spoilers) ultimately falls in with the fugitives, and even falls for one of the girls (I think it’s Capable (Riley Keough), but I’m not absolutely sure) before sacrificing himself to save them near the end.
It’s a nice arc he gets, and he’s rather touchingly pathetic (he has even named the tumors in his neck which portend his impending death), but what else would you expect from Hoult, perhaps the most puppyish of actors? That he throws himself into the more eccentric aspects of the role, screaming “What a lovely day!” as he rides toward what he hopes will be a glorious sacrifice, only makes his performance all the more enjoyable.
“Giving the tumor a cutesy nickname.” He’s so fucking good here. You really feel sorry for the poor son-of-a-bitch. He isn’t even really that concerned with what Joe wants of him; he just wants to get into Valhalla, to “die historic on the Fury Road”. And, in the end, you want him to. (And it was Capable.)
If there’s a weakness to the series (at least the three films that I’ve seen in full), it’s that the villains don’t get quite enough to do. Keays-Byrne actually played the main villain, Toecutter, in the first film (and despite Harry Knowles’ tiresome bleating at the Austin premiere, Toecutter’s not that much of a character), and although he’s plenty creepy as the decrepit Joe, who’s still more than ready to tear off down the road to get back what is “his”, he’s not overly memorable. The wives have adopted several credos in their quest for freedom, one of which is “Who killed the world?”–referring, perhaps, to Joe’s generation, who instigated the downfall of civilization? That there is no real payoff to this question is arguably a fault.
I’m actually pretty happy with Joe. He gets about the right amount of screentime, given the way the plot is constructed, and he’s a pretty imposing bastard. He’s memorable enough–that final hiss is pretty damn perfect. Keays-Byrne said, at the Drafthouse premiere, that playing the role was like all his birthdays and Christmas rolled into one. I can believe it.
In this series, it’s arguably the sick zeitgeist Max fights against which is the real villain, and as personified by Joe, his son and right-hand man Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), and cohorts like the People Eater (John Howard), the Bullet Farmer (Richard Farmer), and the Organic Mechanic (Angus Sampson) to name just a few, it’s a hell of a zeitgeist to stand against. But there’s an extra layer to that which has been the source not only of much critical praise, but may indeed benefit the film in the long run.
The Organic Mechanic has a bit with a piece of medical waste that’s easy to miss, but is one of the more memorable pieces of throwaway business I’ve seen in a while. And the Bullet Farmer fucking rules. “All this over a family squabble.” He just wants to shoot people. And you have to appreciate how the People Eater made sure to wear a full suit even after the apocalypse.
For Fury Road is perhaps the most legitimately feminist blockbuster since…what, Gone Girl? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? When I saw that Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler had been brought on as a consultant, I hoped it would actually pay off in the film itself. And to my delight, it largely does.
Early in the film, we see that Joe has a number of women hooked up to milking machines, treating them as literal livestock, drinking their milk because it’s about the only source of it in this world (Joe does cultivate some greenery, but whether he maintains any flocks or herds is unclear.). Then, the wives leave, leaving behind the proclamation “We are not things”, asserting control over their bodies for the first time in their lives. In a particularly saddening subplot, one of the wives (I think it’s Valkyrie (Megan Gale)) is willing, and ultimately desperate, to return to Joe and earn his forgiveness rather than continue their grueling escape–whether this manifestation of Stockholm Syndrome was the result of Ensler’s consultations or not, it rungs bitterly true.
Valkyrie is one of the Vuvalini, the cycle-tribe Furiosa came from. I was thinking of Cheedo the Fragile. And they invert her desperation quite cleverly at the end.
(spoilers) When Furiosa is reunited with her people, we discover that they are a tribe of women bikers, protecting their corner of the wasteland; they join in the action of the film’s final act, and to see female characters (and older women at that–most of them appear to be in their 50s or 60s at least) taking a genuine part in the action is quite heartening. (Plus, they’re just awesome.) And at film’s end, with Max having helped to save the day–but not having done so at all on his own–we see the women previously used for their milk opening up the previously restricted water supply, their breasts now covered. They have regained their dignity.
The wives themselves blur together a little; Splendid (or “The Splendid Angharad”, if you prefer) and Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz) stand out the most, while Capable, The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) kind of blend together. A little more delineation might have boosted the film’s themes, although given the film’s adherence to the one-dimensional characterizations of the original trilogy, it’s not terribly surprising. All of them do solid work, although there’s some obvious ADR work (shock, given the prevalence of roaring vehicles).
Second time around, there’s a little more differentiation. The Dag in particularly has a line in bizarrely poetic speech which is very Maxine. They’re still not terribly rounded, but they’re more engaging than, say, the hostages in Argo.
Oh yeah, the cars. I’ve barely said a word about the vehicles, but they’re awesome. Someone with more vehicular expertise can no doubt describe them better, but we’ve got all manner of vehicles on display here, from rigs made of car bodies and truck engines welded together, to a whole fleet of vehicles covered in spikes like some kind of porcupine, to vintage cars customized for the purpose of raising hell on the Fury Road. It’s all in the approved Max-ian style. Max’s own iconic Pursuit Special only appears fleetingly; I’ll assume puckishness on Miller’s part and move on.
Certainly the action sequences are staged with all the kinetic exuberance you’d expect, and there are legitimately stunning moments on display here; I will describe some of them after my second viewing, but suffice to say the film does not lack in the least for excitement and spectacle. Miller stages the film superbly from beginning to end, and if it’s the slightest bit indulgent at times, I’m not inclined to begrudge it too much to him, given how he came from making the first film for a quarter of a million dollars to making this for about 600 times that. (The troubled production might also explain a few of the film’s rougher qualities.)
The production design by Colin Gibson is fairly magnificent, from Joe’s citadel to the vehicles themselves (to say nothing of the costumes and especially the makeup, which is superlative), but I want to give special mention to John Seale’s cinematography. Seale reputedly came out of retirement to shoot the film, and it was well worth the trouble. The glowing orange of the desert in the day is impressive enough, but it’s the night scenes–surprisingly but delightfully shot in shades of deep blue, looking artificial in a most cinematic way–that really capture the eye. Elsewhere, the camera is thrust right into the thick of the action; Seale’s work enhances the action (which is good) and greatly enhances the scenes in between (which, for me, is better–that the film does not sag when the cars are not tearing about is highly pleasing).
The cinematography reminds me at times of Cinerama, which often put the camera in rather startling positions to really put you in the action. It’s really stunning work, and I hope to God it at least gets a nomination. And the makeup…holy fuck. I can’t really do better than tell you to see the film and marvel at it. (The whole thing, really.)
Do I even need to mention how thunderously effective the sound mixing and editing is? I suppose I could mention that a lot of the dialogue seemed indiscernible to me (more noticeably so than in Interstellar), but given where this film’s (and series’) priorities lie, it wasn’t too much of a problem. And Margaret Sixel’s and Jason Ballantine’s editing is pulse-raising throughout (even if the film gets the slightest bit repetitive in the home stretch), while Junkie XL’s score is well-suited to the film, if not tremendously memorable outside of it–not as memorable, at least, as the images of a bungee-suited guitarist whose axe shoots fire or a tiered war-drum ensemble on the back of a truck.
I didn’t really have any issues with the dialogue this time. And the score is great–it adds tremendously to the excitement, and really soars at the end. The guitarist, by the way, is the wonderfully named Doof Warrior (iOTA). He’s so much fun to watch.
Here I was expecting to not have much to say about Fury Road besides my basic first impressions, and I get to 2400 words in a sitting. But I think that says something about the film and the impression it made. I will not give it a score this time around (if I had to, I’d go around 84 or 85, but that’s a tentative number at best), but I hope I’ve given a good idea of what to expect from it. It’s kind of a miracle it got made at all; that it’s as good as it is is doubly so. But I’ve said enough. I’m looking forward to just seeing it again–even as you see it for the first time.
It’s so fucking incredible. It’s everything you could hope for and then some. I hate to say it, but part of me hopes the proposed sequels don’t happen. This feels like the perfect culmination of this series, and I don’t know how Miller and co. could top it. If they do…fuck. In any case, this is the best new film I’ve seen since I began this blog, and if I see another film this year to top it, I’ll fall to my knees in gratitude.