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Action, Feminism, Humor, Grit: Analyzing MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Mad Max: Fury Road is the first film I’ve constantly thought about in a long time.

I saw it at a Thursday night preview, and it’s been roaring, riffing and revving in my brain ever since – like the Doof Warrior, wailing away on top the biggest Marshall stack on the scorched Earth, his double-necked guitar/flamethrower melting my cortex.

What a glorious, fevered feast of desolate madness! There are so many reasons I love this movie, so let’s discuss a few of them.

Little backstory, heavy action, all emotion

Fury Road
doesn’t exactly drop us in media res, but it charges along with little narration or dialogue for the most basic of setups and plots. But really, how much plot do you need for most action films? Good guy’s here, bad guy’s in the way, people gotta go from one place to the other place, and people are gonna die.

Between the screenwriters’ backstories and motivations, and character work from consultants such as Eve Ensler, the actors apparently had plenty of material to feed their performances so that the emotions of the actors carried the heft and reason for the action more than anything explained.

Because we get so little backstory on any of the characters, the movie sits in your head and lets you take it for a walk.

For example, let’s look at Imperator Furiosa.

She says to Immortan Joe, “Hi Joe, remember me?” before killing him, those words dripping in anger and vengeance. Credit to Charlize Theron, who packs as much hatred and righteous bile into those words as possible.

But how did she get there? Earlier in the film, Furiosa says that she was taken from her home as a child, presumably by Immortan Joe. Based on Joe’s death cult that treats women as chattel for babies and food, how does Furiosa wind up as a driver in his service instead?

She couldn’t give him babies, could she? How many times was she raped before they figured out she was barren? Imagine that, even in this world, Furiosa used to look closer to the Charlize Theron we know. No wonder she essentially degenders herself in this hyper-phallocentric world: she’s not a man, but not exactly a woman in Joe’s ideal.

How did she lose her arm? What did she have to do to prove her loyalty to Joe, all the while planning to one day betray him? And how much more revenge must she want after the hope of returning home was all wiped away?


The elemental feminism

A group of women whose name, the Vuvalini, sounds like female anatomy. The big bad warlord cast as the ultimate creepy old man, fathering a kingdom built on to-the-total-extreme hyper-toxic masculinity, treating women as only bodies for children and food, and draining good men of their blood. Max washing away blood with mother’s milk. Phrases such as “We are not things” and “Who killed the world?”

Not that there was any contest, but Fury Road obviously is the most feminist action movie of all time, turning white supremacy, sexual slavery and domination of resources into themes and plot points.

Look at how Immortan Joe’s fearsome fiefdom is so horrifying and terrible, yet built on such fragile notions of power and domination. Joe’s first response to his wives being taken from him is to roll out with his entire militia and leave his fortress entirely unguarded. In a world running out of water and gasoline, Joe has squadrons of guzzling hot rods and trucks, and doles out to the masses water that mostly gets wasted. At least he grows some crops, though.

I recently read Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948. He spends a fair amount of time describing Sigmund Freud’s seduction theory, which Freud later abandoned for that Oedipus complex stuff. But seduction theory – used to explain hysteria as effects from trauma, rape and incest – centered on the abusive, rapacious father.

The father dominates and abuses his wife, then rapes the daughter and makes her his new wife. Berlatsky also includes the son, who is made into a daughter when sexually abused by the father.

In Fury Road, we have Immortan Joe, and what he does to the wives and Furiosa. Also, we have how he victimizes Max and Nux. Immortan Joe stands as some post-apocalyptic Darth Vader – “dark father” in German — with his irradiated body, a mask that helps him to breathe, and overblown gestures of power that ultimately backfire.

Within the theory, the father could only be overthrown by mother and daughter banding together, and that could include the victimized son, who would refuse to take his father’s place. And, holy shit, if that’s not exactly what happens in Fury Road!

It’s gritty in a good way

We’ve seen a lot of gritty in our big-time blockbuster films, yes. The harshness and unpleasantness, hard-core violence and disquieting themes. Even Captain America got in on the gritty game, Marvel Studios style, with The Winter Soldier.

Fury Road gives us something different – gritty when there is grit.

As in, dirt. The land is full of dirt, the people are covered in dirt. People are killed by dirt, sucked up into thunder-haboobs. You see the sweat, the blood, the grease and fire. You see the strain of muscles and tendon as bodies are pulled to their limits. Despite the CGI and digital compositing and whatnot, a very high amount of this film is in-camera. It has a handmade feel.

The humor comes in many forms

For a movie about sex slaves, child soldiers, death cults and people clawing each other for water, there’s a lot of humor in Fury Road.

Early in the movie, there’s Imperator Furiosa’s gunner popping his head in the driver’s side window like a short order cook. Or the comic image of Max fighting Furiosa with an unconscious Nux tethered to him.

Immortan Joe’s concubines hosing themselves off with radiator water, looking like they just came out of a beer commercial, and Max’s appropriate WTF look on his face. Joe’s wives are played by two Victoria’s Secret models, the daughter of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, and the granddaughter of Elvis Presley.

The humor grows in its absurdity, in ways both silly and super-dark. Look at Joe’s brothers. You’ve got the Harkonnen-esque money man in pinstripes, cannibalistically gluttonous and full of giant tumors (he’s called The People Eater); and the warmonger called The Bullet Farmer, a self-appointed scales of justice, literally shooting blind at everything – and hitting nothing.

Immortan Joe’s cult is terrifying, and totally absurd. Dudes spray-painting their mouths to prepare to death. And I laughed whenever the Doof Warrior appeared onscreen, even in his glorious death as his guitar swing into center frame in the wreckage of his truck.

The absurdity also cuts into what, for me, is the most horrific part of the film: the callous darkness of Joe’s physician (The Organic Mechanic, of course) delivering The Splendid Angharad’s baby by Cesarian section. (What names in this movie. Angharad is Welsh meaning “much loved one” and is a key figure in Welsh myth.)

Upon finding the baby stillborn, he matter-of-factly says, “It’s dead,” and then offhandedly flops the baby onto the bed of the truck. All I could think of was Christopher Durang’s play The Marriage of Bette and Boo, when the doctor brings out the titular couple’s stillborn baby, yells “It’s dead!” and throws it on the floor, as the stage goes to blackout. An absurd and horrific note on tyranny, like the best of postmodern playwright Eugene Ionesco.

Grim can be colorful

Usually when someone brings up how a movie is grim, we’re shown a muted pallet of grays and blues. George Miller, aided by cinematographer John Seale and editor Margaret Sixel, saw the richness of the Namibia desert’s orange-brown sands and teal skies, and pushes the color to extra-saturation.

How lovely, watching the red, black and orange smoke of the Joe militia’s flares. The nuclear twilight blue of the bog. Or the Doof Warrior in his red union suit, the wives with tan skin and white, diaphanous clothes.

The road ahead

With all the accolades and hosannas heaped on Mad Max: Fury Road, you’re left to wonder what happens now? Does the film fulfill the narrative of old man George Miller teaching the youngins a thing or two about action filmmaking? Will we see more compelling female lead characters working in tandem with the male hero?

In looking forward, I look back. Among the many shelved DC Comics superhero movie projects of the 1990s and 2000s, Miller was tapped to make a Justice League film in 2007. Sure, we got The Dark Knight instead, and we probably were better off. But can you imagine what kind of action set pieces we would have gotten? The full-bore emotionalism and drama?

After seeing what he did with Furiosa, Miller’s take on Wonder Woman could have been all the eroticism, motherliness, pacifism, queerness and kink we didn’t know we missed from the character.

Oh, and we would have seen the Planet Krypton restaurant, for better or worse (probably worse).

But really, when it comes to the action movies of our times – mostly superheroes and comic book-type yarns – I’m hoping for more competent, coherent action, a dash more fun, less by-the-book over-profundity, more awe and wonder.

I just want more complete filmmaking, or a cinematic joyride, or an utterly bonkers, Dumpster fire-level epic mess. I want ambition and storytelling married to technique. I would like more stories of adult content and seriousness with less dour self-importance. I want more playfulness and fanciful design, looks and attitude.

I want color. I want over the top.

I want the reasons movies were made – to bring our grandest fantasies to blistering, eye-popping life.

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