I first watched Mad Max: Fury Road during its theatrical run, and spent the entire running time in shocked, stunned awe at what I saw unfolding. I wrote about it here, but suffice to say that I felt like Fury Road was one of the most exhilarating, exciting films I’d seen in years, a piece of pure cinema that reminded me why I love movies.
Now, 9 months later, I decided to revisit the film. Since then, it’s become massively acclaimed; it won a lot of technical Oscars last night, topped a slew of critics “Best Of” lists, and all that jazz. And so, of course, I worried. Would I cool on the movie now that the “new” had worn off? Would it be a case where I loved the initial dazzle but realized that there just wasn’t much there?
In fact, if anything, my rewatch only confirmed my feelings – that Fury Road isn’t just one of the best action films in years, it’s one of the best films, period. And your reaction to that is probably either “Yup.” or “I just don’t know what you’re talking about.” So let me explain.
First of all, it’s rare to piece of filmmaking that’s as visceral, intense, relentless, and stunning as Fury Road is. The knock has been made that the film is nothing but one long car chase, and while there’s some truth to that, that’s ignoring the fact that making a car chase last that long and never get boring is a heck of a feat. Fury Road is relentless, never taking a break and never stopping, and it’s to the film’s credit that instead of being exhausting, that’s exhilarating, as George Miller gives every section of the film its own flavor, its own separate battles, and does it all while keeping his camera constantly in motion, giving the film even more visceral impact while never losing sight of the coherence of each sequence. You always know exactly where every car is – who’s where, who’s driving, what the stakes are – in this film. And that’s no small feat.
Of course, maintaining a visual coherence is one thing; delivering this level of intensity and impact is another. The stunt work on Fury Road is jaw-dropping, making me cringe and fear for people’s lives like nothing short of The Raid managed to do. Much has been made of Miller’s choice to rely on practical work, and rightfully so; it gives every crash, every sweeping stunt, every impact, and every flipping car a power that no CGI could ever match, even if you didn’t know it.
That practical choice, though, also goes towards the creation of Miller’s nightmarish hellscape. Rather than pack his film with backstory and exposition, Miller lets his props and cars tell the story, as we see tribes worshipping these remaining machines, a warlord who decorates himself with medals of a fallen civilization, and other strange memories of the world that have been distorted throughout history. What at first glance might appear to be a random collection of detritus and props combines together to create its own fascinating, strange civilization, where cars are worshipped, warlords rule through fear and control of resources, and technology rules everything. It’s a master class in world building through props and visual style; you can learn as much about the characters from their vehicles and their attire as you can from their dialogue and actions. Maybe even more so.
Which brings us, of course, to the characters. Fury Road establishes its characters just like it does its world – with a minimum of exposition. We don’t know much about Max, beyond the fragmented stress-induced hallucinations he suffers; we can assume he let someone die, maybe a daughter and wife, but not much else. Furiosa is an enigma as well; she despises Immortan Joe, has tried to escape numerous times, but is trusted with the war rig. There’s reasons for all of it, we know; we’re just not privy to it all. And that’s fine. What matters isn’t their backstories; what matters is who they are, and Miller establishes it wonderfully, through actions, reactions, and their physicality. It’s a strange role for both Hardy and Theron; what dialogue they have is functional at best, and largely about what they’re doing. Instead, we learn about them through their movements – from Max’s silent agreement to serve as a sniper scope, from Furiosa’s confidence in her rig, from silent looks, and so forth.
And none of that even touches on the big elephant in the room: the fierce, uncompromising feminism of the film, which permeates every aspect of it. It’s not just that the film has a female heroine; it’s that she takes over Max’s own movie, becomes the true lead, the focal point. While she fights the big villain, it’s Max who fights the sidekick; when shots have to be taken, it’s her who takes them, not Max. It’s her truck that survives and destroys, not Max’s. And then there’s the story, which deals with women being subjugated and turned into property, and the fact that Max – and even some of the warboys along the way – cannot abide that to happen in their sight. But rather than solving the problem for them, the girls fight for themselves, smash back the patriarchy. After all, as characters ask more than once, who is it that killed this world, if not men like Immortan Joe? This is a blow against a world that views women as a commodity, that views them as incubators and property; it’s the The Handmaid’s Tale writ large, turned into something more epic and brutal.
Maybe none of that works for you. Maybe you look at the film and see empty spectacle – a never-ending car chase, a token female role, a world that feels cobbled together and full of random items. That’s all complaints I’ve heard, and I guess everyone has the right to their opinion. But what I see is a powerhouse film, a stunning piece of action cinema that manages to be as much about the world today – about demagogues who play off of fear, who warn people not to be addicted to water the same way leaders caution us not to get addicted to having rights – as it is about its post-apocalyptic nightmare. It’s a film with some of the most stunning visual style I’ve ever seen, where every frame could be mounted on a wall, where color saturates the screen, where the world sears itself into you. It’s a film where the camera moves constantly, where faces and cars come to life and express more than any dialogue, where the film could lose every spoken word and still be instantly comprehensible and no less effective. And beyond all that, it’s an action powerhouse, delivering some of the best stuntwork, action choreography, and inventive staging that I’ve ever seen – staging that borrows as much from Buster Keaton as it does 70’s gearhead films.
So, if you don’t see the same movie I do, that’s cool, and it’s your right. But man, are you missing out on the masterpiece that I’m seeing.