Published May 15, 2015If cinema has always been about the study of shadow and light, movement and stasis, Mad Max: Fury Road revolutionizes how to see the world in those terms. The film is one of the finest expressions of radical pop art ever put to screen, an angry statement about the nature of conflict and humanity's self-destructive instincts. George Miller has captured images never before seen, a fever dream of speed and kinetics with as singular and personal a beating heart as any film released in recent memory. Mad Max: Fury Road should not exist the way it does, with its bloody beating heart made up of chrome, oil, sand and heat laid bare for all to see, but it's precisely this rejection of conventions of action cinema, of what should be in favour of what the film needs to be, that makes this one an all-timer.
The story is simple, as simple as there's ever been, to cut a jagged line through the action genre that inspired it. A betrayal, an escape, a pursuit, a chase, a woman, a man, a gun, a car. Many cars. Fleets of cars, ripping through the desert at high speed. Fire, water, oil ("guzzoline," rather, to bring us into this world where characters crave their own personal "shiny chrome Valhalla"), sand and blood.
Abandoning traditional narrative structures, Miller opts instead for long, sustained passages of speed and chase as storytelling, employing action as character, inference over exposition. The world-building informs how these characters live in a constant state of chaos and violence. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) rescues the many wives of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne); Furiosa and her rescued group race into the desert in her War Rig to escape; Joe and his War Boys chase after her; Max (Tom Hardy), a prisoner of Joe, gets caught up in the conflict.
The rest of the film plays out as one long chase. Mad Max: Fury Road is as complete an expression of pure cinema, of surfaces in motion, as there's ever been. A high-speed, full-throttle blast of feminist anger, the film belongs to Theron. Commanding the screen with an iconic performance, her Furiosa is the most fully realized character in a film packed with characters who imply more with a simple gesture than any exposition could ever accomplish. Sporting a never-explained mechanical arm that communicates the effects of violence in this wasteland, Theron and her companions vocalize the film's theme repeatedly as an act of desperation: "We are not things. We are not things. We are not things." There has never a feminist action film this explicit in its intentions.
"Who killed the world?" Furiosa asks her followers as a reminder that they are escaping a destructive world engineered by men, a world that craves a "good" death determined by the incestuous and diseased men trying to maintain their power.
Hardy plays Max as barely human, a man of few words who mumbles the few things he says. He's practically a supporting role at times in the film, joining forces with Furiosa to take down Immortan Joe. Fury Road is about the possibilities of cinema's future, but it's also rooted in an organic classicism of composed, functional images that express motion and emotion directly. In that sense, Max becomes an icon of silent cinema, channelling the working man's superhuman simplicity a la Buster Keaton, as he is tied to the front of speeding cars, leaping from great heights and clinging to the side of speeding trucks, all with a deadpan expression of exasperation.
The action in Fury Road is a triumph, a fantasia of action and intensity never before attempted. The frame is packed with moments happening on every level, all in service of world-building. War Boys bang on tribal drums tied to speeding cars to rally the troops, as a man playing guitar (with a flame-thrower attached) stirs Joe's minions into a frenzy; it's sound, speed and motion, all shaken up like Diet Coke and Mentos.
Junkie XL turns in a score like no other, an extended mosaic of engine roars, classical strings and guitar feedback. There is weight to every image, a tangible reality that is rarely attained these days in blockbuster filmmaking. Miller's commitment to practical effects, to real flames and real cars driving fast through the desert, transforms the film into an ode to the possibilities of cinema. This is what's possible when we don't rely on CGI and make images we can believe in. This is the great leap forward in visual storytelling we've been waiting for.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumph, filmmaking at its most elemental. There has never been anything like it before. A new language has been written through cinema. Thank you, George Miller.