Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Before I start talking about Mad Max: Fury Road, I should probably say that I haven't seen any of the other films in the Mad Max series, and that I'm not feeling a particular need to catch myself up.  This should not be taken as a criticism of Fury Road, which is indeed as brilliant and exhilarating as advertized, and whose gorgeous, pulse-pounding action scenes put the rest of Hollywood's blockbuster movies to shame (in particular, the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron, whose busy but weightless extravaganzas of destruction now seem almost embarrassing in comparison; one wishes that Marvel would send all its directors to George Miller for lessons).  But Fury Road is also a fairly self-contained piece of filmmaking--essentially a two-hour-long chase sequence--that neither requires nor rewards an investment in its characters or world beyond the scope of its story.  I've seen the film compared to Gravity, another gorgeous, propulsive action movie with minimal story and characters, and the comparison seems very apt.  Like Gravity, Mad Max is utterly absorbing while you're watching it, but I don't feel any particular interest in visiting its world again.

Part of this might have something to do with the fact that the film's title character often feels like the least essential thing about it.  Tom Hardy has rather quickly gained a reputation as the thinking person's action star, and fans have been waiting for him to find his breakout role, but I'm not sure that Fury Road is it.  The film begins with Max, a survivor in the desertified, post-apocalyptic hellscape in which the series is set, being captured by the henchmen of the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who plans to use him as a "bloodbag" for one of his crazed warriors.  When one of Joe's top lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), escapes on a decked-out big rig in which she has stowed five of Joe's enslaved "wives," Max is carried along with the pursuing war party as a snack for the road.  For the rest of the film, even as he demonstrates the ingenuity and survival instincts that have kept him alive for so long, Max seems less mad than depressed, haunted by the deaths of loved ones he couldn't save, and driven to keep running and fighting not because he has any hope for the future, but because he doesn't know how to do anything else.  It's a surprisingly low-key character turn for a movie that features, among other things, an army of death-crazed warrior-boys who travel with their own death metal guitar player, suspended in mid-air before a wall of speakers that has been mounted on an off-road vehicle, the better to provide a soundtrack for their orgy of destruction.  Hardy doesn't exactly get lost in the shuffle as a result, but when the film ended with him bidding farewell to its characters and moving on, I didn't exactly feel motivated to follow.

Still, if Max feels less like a mover of the plot than someone who has stumbled into it and is just trying to get out alive, that's obviously part of the film's intention.  Fury Road is Furiosa's story.  She's the one who came up with the plan to rescue the wives, and she's the one whose backstory--she was kidnapped as a child from an idyllic, matriarchal society, a "green place" where she hopes to return--ends up driving the movie.  This fact is part of the reason that Fury Road is being lauded for its feminist credentials, and though these are obviously present (Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler was apparently brought in to consult on the script) and treated seriously, I think there's a danger of blowing them out of proportion.  A lot of what Fury Road does with regards to women--making the prime mover of the story a woman who is not sexualized or treated as the hero's prize, featuring multiple female characters, not all of whom are young and beautiful, passing the Bechdel test--is not so much revolutionary as the very baseline of what we should expect from most movies--what we would expect, if we hadn't become so accustomed to the toxic sludge of misogyny that Hollywood blockbusters have been serving up for twenty years.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more Fury Road seems not like a revolution, but like a throwback to the action films of the 80s, before the genre gained the respectability that comes from being Hollywood's primary source of revenue, back when it was still possible to put women and people of color front and center, to be weird and grotesque, and not have to worry about courting an audience made up of thirteen-year-old boys.

(The slightly exaggerated enthusiasm with which Fury Road's feminism has been received is presumably the reason that some of the problems with how the film handles its female characters have so far been elided from its critical reception.  For one thing, the film indulges in the particularly annoying trope of a woman who has spent ages planning a heist or an escape or a rebellion, but who for some reason needs the help of the man who has just now stumbled upon the plan to carry it out.  Fury Road isn't as bad on this front as, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, but it certainly knocks you out of the story when Furiosa reaches one of the crucial stages of her escape plan, and suddenly needs Max's help to get through it even though he's only been on her rig for a few minutes.  For another, though Furiosa herself isn't subject to the male gaze--she's all close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, sensible clothes, and of course a wicked-looking prosthetic arm--the wives aren't so lucky, and it feels particularly significant that they're all young, beautiful, thin, and clothed in skimpy, diaphanous shawls (especially as we see that Immortan Joe has other wives--older, obese women who are pumped for mother's milk like literal cows--who are not part of the escape plan).  The first time we and Max see the wives, they're washing the dust of their escape off each other with a hose as their minimalistic clothing clings to their bodies and goes see-through.  In the screening I attended, the young men sitting in the row behind me did not sound as if their consciousness was being raised.)

What feels much more important to Fury Road's feminist credentials than any particular character or plot point is the very premise of the movie.  I've seen reviewers try to read Fury Road as a statement about human trafficking and sex slavery, which honestly makes about as much sense as trying to read it as a screed against pumping women for mother's milk.  Both of these plot points are merely exaggerated expressions of the true evil at the heart of the movie, toxic masculinity.  Immortan Joe treats women as possessions, brood mares, and cows, yes, but he also treats young men as cannon fodder.  His "war boys" are literally that, children raised to desire nothing but violence, taught that a glorious death in battle will secure them immortality in Valhalla, either unfamiliar with or openly hostile to all soft emotions.  Much attention is paid to their traditions, all of which are designed to glorify both Joe and the boys' sacrifice of their bodies and sanity in the pursuit of his quest, but when Joe removes his favor, the war boys are revealed as what they are: empty children incapable of grasping the complexity of the world, clinging to fairy tales told to them by an uncaring parent.  The brilliance of the movie is less in telling a woman's story, and more in so baldly demonstrating how old men with power will use young men as their tools and weapons, by teaching them to hate and fear women.

This emphasis on toxic masculinity is, however, a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, this is the dirty, diseased secret at the heart of so much of our culture (and our entertainment in particular) and it's refreshing to have it out in the open, even if the message is likely to fly over the heads of much of the audience (and some reviewers).  On the other hand, it means that Fury Road is a feminist work that is ultimately about men.  The only real character arc in the movie belongs not to Max or Furiosa, but to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a war boy who starts the movie in love with death, and ends it having learned to value kindness and friendship.  Women, meanwhile, are left inert by a story like this.  If masculinity, taken to its illogical extreme, is held up as a cult of death, then femininity--which represents emotion, compassion, and of course motherhood and the possibility of new life--is inherently good, and this leaves no room for women to change, grow, make mistakes, and of course feel angry and vengeful.  The film has the good sense to give the wives different personalities and attitudes--from the saintly Angharad (Rosie Huntingon-Whiteley), who preaches forgiveness towards the war boys, to the more militant Toast (Zoë Kravitz) who is happy to blow their brains out--but none of them, nor for that matter Furiosa, is as damaged or as angry as their situation would seem to demand.  They've all held on to their souls in a way that that the men (including Max) haven't managed to, and it's hard not to feel that this is because they are women.

Fury Road ends with Immortan Joe's death, and with Furiosa returning to his stronghold as a conquering hero.  In another movie, this might have been taken as an ambivalent, even bleak ending.  In the unforgiving world of this series, after all, one dictator isn't much different than the other.  Furiosa might not keep a harem or train child soldiers, but she'll still need workers to do the backbreaking labor of pumping water from beneath the ground, and warriors to fight off the other tribes in the area.  It feels odd to say this, but a film less committed to a feminist message might have been willing to acknowledge that a woman's victory isn't necessarily a victory for good.  (Another way in which the film's feminism obscures its other problems is the near-uniform whiteness of its cast.)  But then, in the world of the Mad Max movies, the triumph of good probably isn't a real option.  The best you can hope for is survival, and a brief respite from struggle.  This Fury Road delivers, and, more importantly, earns.  At the end of its explosive, deranged chase, you genuinely want its characters to catch their breath and feel safe for a little while, even if a moment's reflection leaves you wondering just how safe they truly are.


Aaron Loehrlein said...

You articulated a lot of my own (admittedly minor) qualms about the movie. At the end, I found myself wondering about what would happen in the next few days. How long would it take Furiosa to give everyone enough food and water? How much time would she be given? Did she even want to be in charge?

I agree that the female characters sometimes seemed more like abstractions than real people. I was surprised at the lack of tension between the two main groups of women, the matriarchs and the wives. They were strangers in a hostile world, brought together only by Furiosa herself. If memory serves, the two groups trusted each other almost immediately, which I thought made them seem a little foolish. At least the older women had the good sense to be slightly wary of Max and Nux.

everythingisnice said...

The original films follow a progression from realist SF into the more fantastic. At the same time, as the budgets increase they move from being pretty spare to full-on gonzo madness. Both trends reach their apogee in Fury Road but I agree there is no reason to go back to the earlier films (apart from the fact they are good); Miller gives you the full experience in this film.

Where this film fundamentally differs is, as you've picked up, the absence of Max. I've reflect on this a bit and I can't quite work it out; the film is so ambivalent about him that I wonder if Miller just needed his presence for financing. He certainly doesn't have much interest in him as a character. This is signaled right from the beginning and the fact Max and Furiosa share main billing in the credits. I can't imagine this happening with, say, a Batman film. You then get a mini-film complete with portentous voice-over from Hardy which is about all you actually get of Max being the protagonist. His motivation and 'madness' is hardly addressed at all (I get the sense HArdy found it a frustrating role, he always seemed to be struggling to imbuing his character with more than the script allowed). Given this I was as annoyed as you where at the points where Furiosa suddenly needs him to execute (and sometimes even create) her plans. Generally it is much better than this and much better than any similar film I can think of. My favourite scene for illustrating this is the one where the Bullet Farmer is closing on them in the dark. Max takes the gun, shots and misses. One of the Wives (and whilst they were differentiated by character, I didn't get their names) makes a sarcastic comment. In a typical action film, this sort of female shrewishness would instantly be silenced by the heroes successful violence. But Max misses again. Then Furiosa comes and stands silently behind him. He senses her, argues with himself internally and then defers to her. She then literally uses him as support to successfully execute her goals.

The scene where the Wives are introduced is a weird one. At my cinema it was greeted by a laugh for its incongruity, a big part of which comes from the fact it is shot in a very male gaze-y way. And you can't just neatly divorce the character's gaze from the camera's gaze.

Foxessa said...

Yours is a refreshing take from the fangirling elsewheres over the so-called feminist cred.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I think it's very deliberate that Furiosa's people unthinkingly accept the women but are wary of the men. And I think it's telling that Furiosa's choice of words to reassure them on this front is to say that Max and Nux are "reliable." In the world of the movie, where masculinity is distrusted, good men are the ones who know how to take orders from women. Which, as I say in the review, is reductive, but given what we usually get in movies, also makes a nice change.


I kept expecting Max to have a scene where he tells Furiosa about his past and trauma (specifically about the ghosts that we see haunting him at the beginning of the movie). I can't decide if the decision not to include a scene like this is merely an expression of the film's admirable economy with words (there's nothing Max could say that we haven't worked out, and if we're looking for an indication that he's forged a bond with Furiosa, then "Max. My name is Max" does the job perfectly) or yet another point in favor of the film's gender politics - Furiosa's purpose is not to be a receptacle for Max's manpain. As you say, the result is that Max never quite coheres as a character, though that's obviously not a flaw in the movie.


To be clear, I do think the film gets a lot of things right on the feminist front, even if I find the eruption of glee over it a little overblown. The scene Martin describes, for example, where Max accepts that Furiosa is better-suited to the task at hand and agrees to play a supporting role in her heroism, is exquisitely done and sadly rare in other movies.

Thomas Wilson said...

OK first I'm going to agree with you that Mad Max meets the base requirements and the feminist catch crys are blown out of proportion. But a few things:

1) '...the wives aren't so lucky, and it feels particularly significant that they're all young, beautiful, thin, and clothed in skimpy, diaphanous shawls...' --- Because Immortan Joe would obviously pick the best and healthiest?

2) '...(especially as we see that Immortan Joe has other wives--older, obese women who are pumped for mother's milk like literal cows--who are not part of the escape plan).' Yeah I don't they they were Joe's prized posessions, probably used by his underlings. They were also out in the open thus making freeing them, well, difficult.

3) 'The first time we and Max see the wives, they're washing the dust of their escape off each other with a hose as their minimalistic clothing clings to their bodies and goes see-through.' I've seen male gaze in movies, I know what you are referring to. I cannot fathom how anyone took this viewing from this scene. It actually disgusts me because it is blatantly seeing things you wish (don't wish but expect) to see. If anything Max is more overcome by the presence of water. The camera NEVER lingers on the women. Interesingly they also go from barely clothed to fully (practically) clothed by the end. This is an absurd point you and other are imagining.

4) 'What feels much more important to Fury Road's feminist credentials...' This paragraph is bang on.

5) While I agree that only Max and Nux have 'arcs' per se, that is more the fact that this is a movie of climaxes (if the action is anything to go from) and the female characters have reached their end. Now aside from being raped I can guarantee those girls lived a life of (somewhat) luxury. They're clearly angry, and are verbose and seething about it. And to say the Furiosa isn't damaged....well let's ignore her literal damage and talk about the whole seeking redemption thing. She is trying to reclaim her soul after all the no-doubt awful stuff she had to do in order to get into her position.

6) *yawn* regarding throwaway line about whiteness, blame the film industry, that's a different argument.

7) Max doesn't really have a helping hand in Furiosa's plan. In fact she tells him to stay down because she wasn't meant to be with other people. And this is just low-hanging fruit territory, might as well say to get rid of Max altogether (although I'm sure people will actually think this).

8) You reflections on what happens after, and not being compelled to follow Max ... Those don't matter. All that matters is THIS particular story, this exact moment. Fury Road is masterful story telling on many, many levels.
Which is weird because in your first paragraph you say as much ('But Fury Road is also a fairly self-contained piece of filmmaking--essentially a two-hour-long chase sequence--that neither requires nor rewards an investment in its characters or world beyond the scope of its story') so then why bother mentioning hypotheticals?

But yeah some good points and your overall point is valid, just a few things there that I feel are off.

James said...

Another "different argument" Thomas may not approve of:
It's also unfortunate that this film (and, I gather, earlier installments) repeatedly signal "weird and grotesque" via disability and homosexuality.

Thomas Wilson said...

Given the lack of examples to back that statement up, I'll ignore it and just leave this here

mxlm said...

I don't think I agree that the escapees are subjected to the male gaze. They're dressed up in skimpy harem outfits, yes. But this is actually relevant world-building; it tells you what sort of clothes they had access to and therefore what sort of conditions they lived in, beyond the brief glimpse of their prison we get earlier in the film. And importantly, the camera isn't at all interested in lingering on their hips or breasts or exposed skin. We get a long tracking shot of one woman's body, but it's to emphasize her advanced pregnancy. Which, yes, is a fetish for some people but did not read at all to me as though the director was catering to the horny man demographic.

The contrast with something like Transformers when Megan Fox is fixing the car is sharp.

Lewis J. said...

Aside from the it's imaginative set design and adrenaline-pumping action sequences, I think one of the most refreshing aspects of this film is its ability to integrate a strong political message into its narrative without explaining it. Abigail is right that, thematically, the conflict in the movie is between toxic masculinity and life-giving femininity, but Miller conveys it through images rather than conversation. Immortan Joe and his henchmen are ugly and grotesque, while the women he is pursuing are beautiful and graceful and their costumes emphasize that contrast. Joe's mask is a skull and his warboys are painted like corpses, while his wives are dressed like vestal virgins and their white robes show off their natural, healthy bodies. The whole theme is embodied in the costuming and makeup. Compare this approach to something like the Avengers, where the themes are mostly presented clumsily through dialogue. Aside from a few brief snatches of dialogue ("We are not things!" "They are my property!"), Miller communicates through art design and action. It's not subtle, but it allows Miller to create a discussion on gender politics while concentrating most of the film's run time on his fabulous set pieces.

Miller and his costumers also use the same technique to present a balanced vision of gender politics by creating a link between Max, Furiosa, and the "Green Women" the encounter at the edge of the salt flats. They're mostly dressed in beige shirts and black leather, indicating they're all warriors even before the final action sequence. Max and Furiosa even have similar haircuts, indicating they share a mixture of feminine and masculine qualities. (Max actually bridges the film's masculine and feminine spheres, in that he's capable of great violence, but also of sustaining life. As a "universal donor," Max's blood nourishes Nux in the beginning of the movie and Furiosa at the end. He's every bit a victim as Joe's wives, in that his body is being used to sustain Immortan Joe's community against his will). This balanced gender view is heightened by the bag of seeds the green women carry with them. They're still capable of creating life, even in old age, and it continues Miller's theme of life-giving femininity by implying women are nurturing throughout their entire lives, not just when they're young and capable of having children, and don't relinquish it just because they've adopted some masculine traits (i.e. dispensing violence). This is why, thematically, the ending is so uplifting. The women return to the Citadel and promise an end to stifling male rule. It's no coincidence that one of the final shots of the film is Joe's other wives releasing the flood gates and pouring water down onto the downtrodden masses below. Because Furiosa and the other Green Women are a balanced representation of the film's masculinity (Joe) and femininity (Joe's wives) they're the only ones in the film capable of shepherding the community. (Max, for all his virtues, is still too haunted by death to step into a meaningful leadership role, at least on a thematic level)

Karl Heideck said...

"Max never quite coheres as a character, though that's obviously not a flaw in the movie.":

I think this is a film in which familiarity with the earlier installments in the series is entirely optional, yet still potentially beneficial, at least with regard to the thinness of Max's character. His coherence as a character depends somewhat on familiarity with the earlier films, but that factor is not particularly important in the context of Fury Road.

I do agree that the celebrations of the films feminism are overblown. I've read several reviews that implied or outright stated that Theron has noticeably more screen time than Hardy. This is, of course, absurd, but telling. When the male and female lead actors have roughly equal screen time, as they do here, (mostly) male reviewers receive the impression that the woman has significantly more, because they're so used to women having significantly less. But you're absolutely correct: this is the bare minimum we ought to expect out of most films, and it's a bit depressing to realize that this is the BEST we've had in a long time.

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