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.