Mad Max: Fury Road gets it right. While blockbusters attempt to adapt book series, craft complex stories, or build narratives that build towards future films, Fury Road finds more value and worth in the simplicity. That is not to say it a simple film. Far from it. In many ways, it is one of the most complex films to come out of the Hollywood system in a while, but where it places its simplicity and its complexity makes all the difference.
For instance, the plot of the film is elegantly simple. Furiosa (Charlize Theron) kidnaps the breeding women of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the religious godhead of one of the tribes surviving the wastelands of a post-nuclear war. Joe wants his women back and a chase commences. Max (Tom Hardy) is caught in the mix as a “bloodbag” mounted to the hood of the car of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the fervent warriors of Joe who believes that riding for his god will grand him passage into Valhalla.
And from this simple plot premise, already the complexities emerge. While what happens is simple, the world in which these characters inhabit is richly detailed and complex. The social landscape of the tribe and its religious beliefs inform and enriches who these characters are and why they act as they do. Instead of having characters explain themselves, it’s the small moments where an act or a chant informs who these characters are and what they believe.
Belief is one of the driving elements of the film. Fury Road could have only been survival story where the protagonists have to face the elements and their fellow humans out of sheer survival instinct. However, the film becomes more than that as it explores how belief in something beyond life and an adherence to hope amid a seemingly hopeless world become defining elements of the characters. It is not enough to survive, one must live for something.
This goes back to what makes the series fascinating. Tracing the three films, there’s this descent of civilization into tribalism. This often results in behavior that seems animalistic and base, yet Fury Road reminds the audience that there is still something beautiful about humanity, still some glimmer of hope, a quest for something deeper. It’s made clear that Furiosa is seeking the road to redemption. And as terrible and horrifying as people are in Fury Road, there are glimmers that humanity is something that can be redeemed. There is hope.
It’s interesting to see how Max fits into all of this now. The hero of the original Mad Max became a cynical wanderer by The Road Warrior and finally hero of the weak in Beyond Thunderdome. Here, Max is a mix of the latter two. However, the film positions him less as the film’s protagonist and more as a character caught up in events beyond him.
In a fine bit of world-building and narrative storytelling, Max starts as the most insignificant of people, literally only good as a bag of blood to keep Nux alive enough to take to the roads. While the previous three films followed Max and his journey through a hellish world, here, Max is a tiny part of this larger world. He mucks things up for that larger world, but his significant is often downplayed and minimalized.
The film’s biggest weakness is trying to make Max a more complex character. The film ties back to Mad Max by having Max’s occasionally lose grips with sanity and gain visions of his dead daughter. While it creates for a lot of visually jarring moments, Max’s position as an incidental character makes this element unnecessary flab on an otherwise lean story.
On another note, it should be mentioned that Fury Road is most certainly a feminist film. The entire story revolves around liberating women from their status as primarily sex objects and breeding instruments into their own agents. This idea particularly reaches its zenith in the final act with the last tribe of survivors the group encounters.
It also makes Furiosa a capable fighter and survival whilst not making her descend into the emotionless bitch that often inhabits these roles. In fact, the film also portrays Max and Nux in particularly emotional moment so even the men are not the prototypical stoic, unexpressive male action heroes. These people have a reason to weep for themselves and for the world and the film doesn’t shy away from showing that.
All this from a film that is essential one long chase. Fury Road doesn’t have the complex plots or premises of many of Hollywood’s modern blockbusters and it’s all the better for it. The realization that simply inhabiting the world, observing it unfold, and watching how the characters react will create more than enough to leave people talking after leaving the theater.
© 2015 James Blake Ewing