When the credits roll at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road, about a dozen different screens run, one after another, listing in enormous font three characters each and who played them. Dozens of characters, most of whom had at most a single line, and there is an individual and uniquely insane name for every single one of them. That’s the sort of world building that George Miller has engaged in with this film. Even the characters that are barely a footnote are fully realized, living and breathing creatures in this world that he has carved out of half mad visions of a destroyed world.
This is the best of the Mad Max films, improving upon everything that worked in the old Mel Gibson classics, burning off the rest, and turning out one of the best action films I’ve ever seen. And let’s be absolutely clear, this is the action film to put them all to rest. This is a kinetic and destructive cocaine-fueled orgy of action from the title screen to the credits. This is the film that might just kill Michael Bay in abject humiliation, because it’s clearly what he’s always wanted to make when he grew up, and every moment of its glorious transcendence is another bit of evidence of his complete failure as a filmmaker.
Fury Road has approximately three quiet scenes in its entire runtime. Other than that, it is continuous action. That’s not to say that it has big set piece action sequences. It doesn’t in the least. Set pieces are an entirely inadequate description, because either the entire film is a set piece or none of it is, which defeats the purpose of the description.
But those few quiet moments it has, they inform the rest of it, providing the motivation and the drive that puts these characters through hell. In only bits and pieces of dialogue, it says mountains about the dangers of hope, and the possibilities of redemption. Tom Hardy speaks maybe a couple of dozen lines in the entire film, playing a role that mixes together a blend of complete madness and vulnerability, with a man who is hardened beyond any consideration except for survival. It’s significant somehow that this character was once a cop, something mentioned only in passing. Because the clever thing that the film does is hone in on how it’s not that chaos follows the fall of civilization, but terrible order.
Civilization might fall, but it’s filled with societies still. They might be murderous rapists, but they still think and feel. They have reasons for what they do. They create religions, create belief systems. And for all the evil that the antagonist of the film is responsible for, he’s also a man who has built something that gives purpose and something to believe in for his clan. The wasteland is dotted with such groups, some more or less terrible than others, but all still trying to impose order. Max, that desolate old cop, has given up on any hope of law, any hope of order, any hope of hope. For him, all that is left is survival. The legend of the Road Warrior is not of a hero but of a lonely ghost haunting the atomic deserts. And when he does help, it’s not a reluctant conscience clawing its way to the surface, but of guilt that won’t stay buried, of the family that he couldn’t save.
But it’s Charlize Theron who owns this film. It’s fair to say that she’s the main character. Her story drives the film’s story. It is her character who evolves, not Tom Hardy’s. It’s a stroke of genius by Miller to make a post-apocalyptic movie predominantly populated with female protagonists, all individuals that don’t fit into easy boxes even if only given moments of screen time. Sure, the core of the plot is that Theron’s Furiosa is prison-breaking the tyrant’s harem, but that makes them neither stereotypical damsels in distress, nor a half dozen interchangeable background characters.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a joy of a movie, a perfect action film that fuses astonishing surreality with deeply drawn characters and a world so detailed you feel like you can practically touch it. And there’s a hidden depth to it that makes it resonate, makes you think about its themes and about why the characters do what they do. It’s easy to say that a film has heart, a bit rarer to say one has a brain, but this one has a soul.
It also has a blind guy in red pajamas hanging by chains from a wall of speakers mounted to the front of a murder tank, playing an electric guitar that shoots gouts of fire. Because this film is mad awesome.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.