Silver Screen: Mad Max: Fury Road ****1/2
And then there’s the more pessimistic view of the future— perhaps the most pessimistic. The post-nuclear wasteland of Mad Max: Fury Road is a sun-scorched hellscape rendered nearly uninhabitable. The surviving citizens, scarred and mutated by their toxic environment, huddle in ramshackle tribes at the feet of bestial overlords who control the Earth’s dwindling water supply.
Sounds like a trudge, but George Miller’s thirty-years-in-the-making followup to his classic action trilogy is a sandblasted madcap heavy-metal opera. The smart, spare writing is overshadowed by the demolition-derby antics and lurid peyote-tinted images, but its brilliance lies more in what it doesn’t say.
Our hero— who, as it turns out, isn’t even really our hero— is introduced in a half-hour-long frenzy of action. Max (Tom Hardy) fights his way out of chains, battling through hordes of hairless powder-white henchmen working for scrapyard emperor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Burne), only to have his escape foiled. Max and his fellow prisoners are strapped to the front of hodgepodge war vehicles and drained of their blood— extra plasma to fuel the drug-crazed hordes driving the death machines.
Immortan Joe’s crew is hot on the heels of Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a driver for his army gone rogue who has taken her battle rig and absconded with Joe’s harem of wives (including Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley).
Joe’s army chases Furiosa across the desert. Max decides to pick a side. Thus ends the plot.
Fury Road’s simplicity is its strong suit, but it’s not a simple movie. It’s operatic in the same vein as John Milius’s classic Conan the Barbarian, which mostly eschewed dialogue in favor of bold, imagistic storytelling. (Fury Road’s orchestra pit is filled with a roaring truck staffed with a massive, dreadlocked timpani section and a masked electric guitarist.) Its ideas and emotions are sketched in bold, broad strokes, and its high-pitched conflicts strain toward the mythological.
Fury Road is uncomplicated only because Miller wisely allows it to be. We catch glimpses, sometimes intriguing and sometimes confounding, of Immortan Joe’s terrifying fiefdom built atop a massive, rocky cliff. The elaborate dress and ritual suggests a complex society, one as befuddlingly nuanced and archaic as that of Dune, but Miller trusts us to gather all we need through implication and be content to marvel at the rest. A little mystery is a good thing, especially when it unencumbers the movie from exposition and allows the action to propel the narrative.
What Miller also leaves unspoken is that Furiosa, not Max, is the movie’s hero. Theron, who’s as convincingly badass here as any cinema beauty since Linda Hamilton in Terminator II, both literally and metaphorically drives the story. She sparks the conflicts by freeing the harem, and it’s her rig the crew is taking toward the promise of a free society somewhere past the salted flats of the dried-up sea. She’s behind the wheel; Max is along for the ride. And speaking of things better left unspoken: There are no cheesy girl-power shoutouts. Everyone, from feral Max to the soot-smeared Furiosa, is too besieged to spend time on quips or calling out the movie’s matriarchal subtext. Besides, that would get in the way of the crashing cars and blood.
Fury Road might be limited by its brash, thick-skulled genre. But Miller— who all but invented the biker-punk post-apocalypse— finds a Cantorian infinity within those bounds. The adrenalized pacing, astounding widescreen vistas, precariously choreographed atrocities, and subversive notions work in perfect concert together. It matches up blow-for-blow, fireball-for-fireball, with any modern blockbuster, but unlike the recent crop of hyperkinetic digitized cacophonies, Fury Road overwhelms you in the best possible way.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.