There is a tendency in many pop culture stories to mistake complexity for sophistication. The more plot twists and turns, the better; the more tangled the narrative, the more likely we are to find some kernel of meaning in one of its many strands. It is thus refreshing when a story dares to remember the virtue and pleasure of simplicity. In contrast to the bloated mess that constitutes much Hollywood action and superhero fare, Mad Max: Fury Road follows the simplest and most mythic story of all—what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s journey.” It’s a story director George Miller has told many times—through films as different from the Mad Max series as Babe and Happy Feet—but it’s one that perhaps will always be inexplicably compelling, due in large part to its primordial roots. Its essence is the arc that defines all journeys since there have been people to journey: setting out, the challenge, transformation, the return. It is, according to T.S. Eliot’s resonant phrase, “to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is a high-ranking official in the service of the Citadel, a stronghold ruled by the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and set up as an oasis-prison against the scorched Wasteland that covers the earth. Joe keeps the underclass in place by restricting access to the world’s most precious resource, water. At the beginning of the film, Furiosa goes rogue, setting off across the desert in the colossal War Rig in hopes of liberating her precious cargo—Immortan Joe’s Five Wives, whom he keeps as slaves for breeding heirs. Joe sets off in pursuit of Furiosa with his full army of monstrous cars and mutant War Boys (who are something like a cross between orcs and Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Mephisto)—one of whom, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), has taken (Mad) Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) along for the ride as his human “blood bag.” The ensuing two hours are essentially an escalation of this chase, which hardly ever slows down and eventually results in Max and Nux joining Furiosa’s side to fight off Joe.
The world Miller gives us is a stunning realization of a singular vision, a curious and indeed mad offspring of action, horror, and arthouse sensibilities. The aesthetic is entrancing, and more than slightly menacing—an eclectic mix of heavy metal, steampunk, and Terry Gilliam-level bizarre (I was reminded more than once of Brazil), all delivered at a breakneck pace. It is like looking at a Hieronymus Bosch painting if the artist had lived in the oil and water-parched twenty-first century. Here, the veneer of civilization has been stripped away by nuclear fallout, forcing the remnant of humanity back into primitive, mythic forms, which manifest themselves in more than just character and place names. Symbols loom large. Characters flee or welcome Death, seek Redemption. The script may be light, and the story simple, but one feels the psychological depth of the world. Every character, every car, every detail has a weight that suggests a unique backstory, which the film mercifully refuses to expound. I was reminded of literary critic Erich Auerbach’s description of the terse, seemingly bare prose of the Old Testament as compared to the highly descriptive verse of Homer’s Odyssey:
The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand [the Odyssey’s] fully externalized description, uniform illustration, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings . . . on the other hand [in the Old Testament], certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings.
One mythic expression of humanity that we find in this sparse but deep world is Immortan Joe’s hyper-masculine society, which celebrates death, slavery, and the cult of the warrior. It is a return to a kind of Viking paganism channeled through the divinity of the V8 engine. Cars roam the Wasteland like skiffs on the sea, in search of pillage and the glory of eternal life in a chrome Valhalla, achieved through self-sacrifice in battle. Exhibitions of testosterone are raised to the level of the parodic. Set against this, there is the feminine resistance of Furiosa, the Five Wives, and a possibly apocryphal Eden known as the “Green Place,” which is populated by the Vuvalini, an elderly and resourceful matriarchal clan.
Themes of fertility and renewed life are clear symbols opposing Joe’s brute violence and dehumanization. There has been much ado about the film being a kind of “feminist manifesto,” one reviewer even going so far as to call it a dystopian tale of reproductive rights. Boiling the film down to this point misses the mark. It has no overarching theoretical agenda, feminist or otherwise—despite its overturning a host of sexist tropes, refusing to objectify or ogle its female characters, and giving the lead to Furiosa (Max is literally out of the driver’s seat for most of the film). It simply believes in, and shows, a true equality and solidarity of the sexes, and professes the desirability of a society built on life, equality, and justice rather than on death, slavery, and oppression. This better society is one containing all kinds of people: cripples, freaks, and lunatics—the kind of rabble Flannery O’Connor envisioned would inherit the kingdom of heaven. And this society, the film argues, is one that women may have a better shot at initiating in the post-apocalypse.
The relationship between the sexes, typified by Furiosa and Max, is one that exists in a side-by-side, outward-facing posture oriented toward the world of action. For most of the film, as Max tells us in an opening monologue, these characters are concerned only with survival; they are reduced to fight or flight mode, unable to think about anything else except escaping their ordeal alive. Max is driven by his basic animal instinct to continue existing, an occupation which is necessarily focused on the present. He shuns hope, calling it a mistake, and adds that “if you can’t fix what is broken, you’ll go insane.” But at Max’s transformative turning point he finds himself yoked to Furiosa’s hope for a new life and better world. Together they decide on an improbable plan—return to the Citadel, cutting off Joe in the Wasteland. The film suggests that hope is only possible through the combined strength of both Max and Furiosa, an expectation of real change rather than an empty, self-gratifying wish.
In this view, Immortan Joe and the War Boys are the victims of a kind of cruel and excessive nostalgia, one which desperately clutches at what it cannot hold and hopes in a false ideal; Joe’s relentless quest to assert and reclaim his “property” is his own form of spiritual enslavement. By contrast, Max and Furiosa, even the War Boy Nux, are turned relentlessly toward the future and the possibility of building life again—indeed, of being redeemed. Although Furiosa’s home has been lost, she is committed not to giving herself over to grief but to finding a new one. This unsentimental posture is one that allows for real and meaningful self-sacrifice—and for Nux, a final righting of the twisted and empty self-sacrifice practiced by the War Boys.
Transformation is both experienced and effected by the heroes. It reflects the spirit of the film, which is not glory or revenge, but revolution. In the final analysis, Fury Road is closer kin to Sergei Eisenstein’s October than to the standard vendettas of the action genre. A theme that Snowpiercer rendered pretentious and silly is here harnessed into something immediate and forceful. Violence, while seemingly necessary to overthrow corrupted order, is never gratuitous, always purposeful and defensive on the part of the heroes. When Nux breaks into the War Rig and Furiosa attempts to kill him, one of the Wives protests: “That’s an unnecessary kill!” But violence is also the way of the old gods, the primitive human neurosis, a dehumanizing act that is fueled by the death wish. The film’s ambivalence about revolutionary violence is striking, given the culture of a genre where seemingly no thought is given to the cause and effect of such acts. Miller has said that his interest stems from his time in a trauma ward (he’s a former doctor), where he witnessed “the aftermath of all kinds of violence.” Fury Road offers no final view on whether or not violence may undermine the goals of revolution, equality, or hope. But the fact that this ambivalence is consciously in the background, pleading to be acknowledged, is rare for an action film.
Fury Road recalls Eisenstein in another way as well. By far the most gratifying element of the film is not its story, its characters, or its politics, but its cinematic coherence. This applies to how Miller shoots action sequences—they are lucid, elegant, not disorienting—in addition to the film as a whole. Miller reveals himself yet again as a student of a more visually expressive and inventive tradition of filmmaking, one which diverges from the more discursive, script-heavy norm in contemporary American cinema. Miller’s tradition traces its lineage from silent film to contemporary masters like David Lynch and Terrence Malick, in which an image, a gesture, or a camera movement has a suggestive meaning and intuitive sense. The structure of images, sounds, story, and edits come together to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts, working with a rhythm close to poetry or music. The simplicity of Fury Road’s story allows an even greater freedom in telling it in an inventive way, and the cinematic telling in turn draws out the story’s mythological undertones. As in Eisenstein, the film’s overall flow, its montage, follows its own inherent logic and makes possible the “multiplicity of meanings” Auerbach attributed to the style of the Old Testament epic. Apart from the action thrills on the film’s surface, it is this factor, the harmony of form and content, that makes Fury Road a genuinely compelling work of art.