Max Rockatansky is not his own man, never the focal point of the franchise that bears his name. He’s a cipher, a way for writer-director George Miller to slip into a ruined world, a world that’s too stupid to live and too stubborn to die. If the doomsday prepper set is right and there is something left of our world once we’re done hollowing it out and wasting it away, it’ll take more than a bunker full of Gatorade and beef jerky to survive what’s coming. Beyond any extreme, beyond Beyond Thunderdome, the argument George Miller has made over the course of four films and 36-years is that survival, on such a vast and awful scale, is not something you can prepare for, but is something that’s thrust upon a person, something one suffers until the world stops playing with its food and swallows whole. Max Rockatansky is mad, but he’s never his own man for long. First he’s eating, then he’s the property of a marauding band of chalk-painted dieselpirates, personal bloodbag for a dying lunatic soldier who’d like nothing more than to dip himself in chrome and punch his ticket to Valhalla. It’s one way of living when nothing’s meant to live, at least.
Mad Max: Fury Road starts hot and never lets up. It is two hours of tight, ferocious lunacy, audaciously shot and deftly edited, ugly to the point of surreal beauty, a bomb dropped in an era of action filmmaking cowed by expectation and formula. There has been nothing better since Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There has never been anything quite like it. Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself the hood ornament of a suicide engine that’s chasing after a woman, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has made off with the brides of a warlord (Hugh Keays-Byrne) that figured out a way of pumping clean water up from the bowels of the earth. That he has carved something beautiful out of the desert is beyond the point—Immortan Joe can turn the water off and on as he pleases, and that makes him the figurehead of one of the most perverse cults in film history. He counts his army not in henchmen, but in lumpen blobs of flesh and apocalyptic guitar players, chalkfaced worshipers at the altar of American muscle and syphilitic bankers who kill for sport while complaining of the cost. The goal for Furiosa and the brides—several of whom are pregnant via rape—is unspecific even by the standards of a Mad Max film, a “Green Space” where they can live, provided for and protected. Immortan Joe wants these women back. His warriors hope that he will escort them to Valhalla. To say that Furiosa’s cause is doomed is obvious. In a world like this, all causes are.
Of course, Miller’s film has unending potential as thinkpiece material. That The Vagina Monologues‘ Eve Ensler was hired as a consultant and that Furiosa is ostensibly the protagonist in a film bearing the name of a man made Fury Road the subject of a pitiful boycott on the part of the toxic men’s rights movement. The women in this film seek revenge and/or redemption from their rapist. Max spends nearly a third of the film strapped to a cross, giving his blood to an undeserving sinner (Nicholas Hoult). Immortan Joe calls his water supply Aqua Cola, which is something of a throwaway line until you remember that companies like Nestlé have been working for years to privatize that very resource and are run by men who have flat-out said that water is not a basic human right. Yes, yes, but all of this is secondary to the filmmaking, which is trash-beautiful to a point I didn’t believe even George Miller capable of. If you can call the grease and grunge and engine exhaust of Mad Max an aesthetic, then this permutation of the series is that aesthetic at its peak, inviting us to delight and disgust in its orgy of mutants, cars, and war.
Fury Road is fast, and not in an illusionary sense. Too many action movies are edited to compensate for a lack of physicality, the absence of actors in real space or a dearth of body to body contact. Think of how The Avengers cuts from a CGI Iron Man punching a CGI Hulk to Robert Downey, Jr.’s face, eyes scanning a CGI computer readout. Or how an action movie sans an “action star” cuts away from a punch, using rapid editing and sound design to imply the force of a blow. Miller and cinematographer John Seale want something more. They want us to taste gasoline in our mouths and feel the sun blazing on our necks. They want every bullet to matter and every twisted wreck to cause one to wince. Their camera hovers over Immortan Joe’s armada like a buzzard looking to pick clean the bones of whatever dies first. I don’t want to say that every action movie should be shot like this, but if every action movie had even an ounce of this one’s unflinching courage to just be different, there’d never be cause to leave the multiplex. But that’s not the world we live in, and, as such, Mad Max: Fury Road is less a breath of fresh air than it is one giant gulp after another after clawing oneself out of an airless grave. We emerge to a world ruined beyond any hope of repair. Increasingly, it’s the only one left to love.
Mad Max: Fury Road. With Tom Hardy (Max Rockatansky), Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), Nicholas Hoult (Nux), Zoë Kravitz (Toast), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Immortan Joe), and Nathan Jones (Rictus Erectus). Directed by George Miller, from a screenplay by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris.