Mad Max Fury Road has been praised on a number of levels. Much of the conversation has been centered around it’s use practical special effects and its treatment of gender. Those are worthy elements, but I want to talk about other things.
First of all, there’s the movies unique rhythm. Many action movies--even well-made ones like Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America: The Winter Soldier suffer from a samey-ness, not because the characters or stories are anything alike, but because the movies themselves are structured similarly. There are no wasted moments . Everything important is there and everything unimportant is left out. But rhythmically, this strength can become a weakness. Because they are paced similarly It means the movies FEEL the same on a physical level even if the stories themselves are very different.
Fury Road is different.
Fury Road opens with a flurry of character introduction, plot, and world-building that would take up the first third- to one-half of most movies. Max is chased, captured, escapes, and is recaptured again with such whiplash speed, I wondered what was the point of having him escape at all.
After this initial whirlwind tour, the movie hits us with a car chase through the desert that stttreeettttches on and on. Furiosa escapes the Citadel is a single-beat of action on par with “Nick Fury is attacked“ in Winter Soldier or the prison break scene in Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet where these beats last only moments in the latter to movies, in Fury Road, Furiosa’s escape provide the spine of the film. In Fury Road the character moments don’t happen around the action scenes, they happen inside of them.
Later it does the opposite, taking a sequence that other movies would build into a set piece--the night fight with the Bullet Farmer--and has the majority of the sequence happen completely off screen.
And then there’s the climax. Theoretically, this should be the moment where things get bigger and better, where we build to the ultimate moment--is just a repetition of what we’ve seen before…a car chase through the same desert they just passed through back the way they came.
Structurally and literally, the movie is going backwards.
On paper, pacing-wise, this story is an abomination.
On screen, it works beautifully because the rhythms are so different from what we’re used to seeing, we can’t predict where the next beat will land and thus we remain totally engaged.
Secondly, I like how quietly examined the different ways we use religious ritual in our lives. Immmortan Joe, the War Boys, the Vulvalini, and the Wives all used ritual movements or gesture. In other words, those rituals weren’t just things they believed with their minds or said with their lips, it was something they enacted with their bodies.
I think many times, when it comes to religion, we want to equate it with the mind, with what we believe. Something that we can support or disprove with reasons and rationality.
But religion and religious rituals operate on a level more primal level. Sometimes they control us, sometimes they inspire us, sometimes they are part of our community--helping us celebrate or as a way of telling insiders from outsiders…and sometimes they bring us comfort even if we don’t completely understand, remember, or believe in them.
A third thing, I liked about the movie was its approach to death. The film might make a statement about gender and politics, but the violence is apolitical--hero and villain alike are stabbed, shot, or thrown under wheels.
And while certainly some deaths are bigger, sadder, or more satisfying than others because of our connection with the characters, no life is treated as inherently more important or valuable than another. It’s a rare thing in action movies
In Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, Groot’s death is treated as heroic and tragic and valorous; the death of the dozen or so faceless goons he skewered several minutes earlier is treated as a fuck yeah/comedy moment.
Yes, Nux sacrifices himself to save his friends in Fury Road just as Groot does in Guardians of the Galaxy, the deaths feel different. Nux’s death is about Nux--in a sense it is a victory for him as a good death is something he has been working towards the whole movie. Whereas Groot’s death doesn’t seem to be about Groot or even about death. It seems to be about getting an emotional reaction from the audience.
Fury Road treats death with respect, neither glamorizing nor trivializing it. In Fury Road, death is simply death. What matters is our attitudes towards it or our reactions in the fact of it.
The last thing that struck me about Mad Max Fury Road is the thing that struck me the hardest, even though it’s also the thing about which I have the least to say.
It’s the moment where the villainous henchman shouts with a mixture of pride and grief: “I had a little baby brother! And he was perfect! Perfect In Every Way!”
It’s not because of what the line reveals about Rictus Erectus’ character. It’s not because of how the scene speaks to the objectification of mothers as breeders and children as success objects or the role of body perfection and gender and their relationship to power in Immortan Joe’s--and by extension our own--society. It’s not because Rictus was played by Nathan Jones and I like seeing ex-pro wrestlers--even obscure and unsuccessful ones--in movies.
It’s because I once had a little brother too.