Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Australia, 120 minutes. Directed by George Miller. Starring: Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron.
When I first saw Mad Max, I was expecting a typical, hyper-masculine action movie: fast cars, explosions, scantily clad women, and a rugged rebel-without-a-cause to save the day. And, in fact, Mad Max combined all of those things into a two-hour-long car chase that still managed to defy all of my expectations and leave me desperate to see it again. The difference is this: Mad Max has many of the standard ingredients for an action movie, but it is not about them. In fact, it could be easily argued that Mad Max is not really about Max Rockatansky at all. Our rugged rebel becomes almost a secondary character in a film that focuses instead on themes of survival, redemption, the objectification of women, and the dangers of toxic masculinity. Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth Mad Max film, revitalizing a series that has not had a new film in 30 years. Tom Hardy takes on the role of Max Rockatansky — played by Mel Gibson in the original films — with Charlize Theron joining him as the renegade Imperator Furiosa. The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland complete with insane sandstorms, a sickly mutated population, and flamethrowing guitarists atop giant war vehicles.
In the aftermath of a nuclear fallout, the world has transformed into a deadly desert, with what little civilization remains ruled by Immortan Joe, a tyrannical figurehead who controls the clean water and withholds it from the general population. Max, a lone wanderer haunted by his past, is captured by Immortan Joe’s War Boys.
Hardy portrays Max as a striking antihero: a desperate man with nothing left and nothing to lose, stripped down to his most primal survival instincts. The real stars of the film, however, are his traveling companions. As Max fights to survive, he is forced to team up with Furiosa, an Imperator gone rogue, and the five women she is trying to lead to freedom. Furiosa is a fierce and revered warrior, unhampered by the disability of a lost arm. Kidnapped by the War Boys as a child, she is using her status as Imperator to make her escape with determination, attempting to liberate Immortan Joe’s wives in the process.
The five wives, or “breeders,” are captives, whose sole purpose is to provide Immortan Joe with healthy children in a world where most are born disfigured and diseased. At the time of their escape, some are already pregnant with Immortan Joe’s future warlords. While the women react to their unknown future with varying levels of joy and fear, they all dream of a safe place to begin again, raise their children in peace, and belong to no one but themselves. Throughout the film they support each other with their rallying cry, which they left as their final message to Immortan Joe: “We are not things!” This message seems to also be aimed at the film industry in general. When most films cannot even pass the Bechdel Test, it can easily be argued that the film industry views women as objects to serve a man’s story rather than their own.
One thing that separates Mad Max from the action movie pack is that, despite the wives’ pasts, their beauty, and their revealing clothes, they are not sexualized. While it is made clear that they are sex slaves, we are not forced to watch any act of sexual violence against them, either before or after their escape. The audience is able to develop sympathy and compassion for the abused women without the “shock factor” of witnessing the abuse. Similarly, there was not one instance of romantic or sexual tension between Max and any of the women in the film. In fact, when Max first comes across the group, they are bathing. The frantic Max barely spares a glance for the women, focusing instead on the water. This is a refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic world, where the constantly dangerous setting and emotionally damaged characters leave no space for romantic relationships.
This film also refreshingly addresses the harm done to men in this hyper-masculine world. Both primary male characters, Max and Nux, are victims of toxic masculinity. As opposed to the typical self-assured, stoic “male fantasy” heroes, the leading men in Mad Max are shown to be weak, conflicted, and emotional. For Max and Nux, forcing themselves into the mold of the masculine ideal ingrained in them by society harms them instead of empowering them. Both are nearly destroyed by the pressures of their civilization, and both find their redemption in the empowered women around them.
When we first meet Max, he is barely human. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying Max as a sort of feral beast, moving with the frantic anger of a wounded animal. For the first half of the movie, Max actually wears a muzzle and communicates only in grunts and monosyllables. However, as his trust and respect for Furiosa and the wives grows, we see him begin to regain some of his humanity as he feels compassion for his companions and finds comfort in their presence. Through the strength of the women surrounding him, Max slowly finds his voice throughout the film, culminating in the movie’s climax, where an emotional Max is able to confide in Furiosa.
In contrast to Max’s tortured veteran, Nux is a young War Boy, a diseased soldier who is eager to please and dreams of glory. He is determined to be the one to return the wives to their tyrant. Raised to fight for Immortan Joe, Nux believes that his only worth is in living and dying for his leader. His ambition is to “die historic on the Fury Road,” believing Immortan Joe’s promise that he will be a hero in death. He attempts to sacrifice himself multiple times to stop Furiosa and return the wives to captivity, and falls into deep despair and self-hatred when he fails. Unlike Max, whose redemption comes primarily through his trust in Furiosa, Nux is redeemed by Immortan Joe’s wives. They are the ones who acknowledge that Nux is no more than a boy brainwashed by his society who can be saved. They show him that, like them, he is also not a thing to be possessed by Immortan Joe.
Mad Max was edited by South African-born editor Margaret Sixel, and it was her first action film. She is known for her work on family films like Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City. Her first foray into the action genre was a huge undertaking. The film consisted of 480 hours of footage, leading Sixel to make upwards of 2700 cuts — 1500 more than were needed for the second Mad Max film. Sixel took on this three-year challenge while parenting two teenage boys, often single-handedly when her husband George Miller, the film’s director, was filming for months at a time. Miller insisted on having Sixel edit the film despite her lack of action movie experience, “Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie.” And he was right. Part of the secret to the success of this film lies in the editing, where Sixel directs the focus away from the guns, cars, and fighting, and onto very real social issues.
Mad Max is among the most unique action films I’ve seen, deviating not only from the original Mad Max films but also from the traditional formula for modern action movies. This film points an accusatory finger at the industry’s treatment of women, and it does so within a torrent of explosions, acrobatics, and chrome spray paint. With an abundance of praise from critics and a $109.5 million debut weekend worldwide, Mad Max makes a clear statement that complex female characters with their own motivations and character arcs make successful action movies. Hopefully, the film industry will take note, and we will have many more films like Mad Max in the near future.
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