I’ve always had a fondness for the Mad Max films. I love the desertpunk vibe, the sheer anarchy and chaos of them, how gleefully over-the-top it all is. I love the post-apocalyptic setting and the subtle deconstruction of certain political ideologies.
Mad Max: Fury Road was everything I hoped it’d be and more.
It has a clear feminist and environmentalist message. Let’s put that out there straight away. And it’s hilarious to me that some corners of the internet are freaking out about FEMINAZI PROPPERGANDA (sic) because honestly? The feminism implicit in this film is not revolutionary or radical. This is a film about a woman freeing other women from sex slavery. The wives repeat the mantra ‘we are not things’, cementing their identity as human beings with thoughts and feelings and the right to be more than their reproductive organs. It’s a film in which a group of women – and a few men – team up to fight oppression and slavery, and are equals in this fight. None of these ideas are ‘out-there’. Having women on screen whose purpose is not to be eye candy, or love interests, or mere fodder to advance a male protagonist’s story and character development – this is not radical. It should shock nobody. That is still does is mindblowing to me.
I love that when we first properly meet the wives, the scene is shot in such a way that we already think we know where it’s going – young, beautiful women soaked to the skin, flimsy garments wet through. And yet Max is more interested in the water than he is in their bodies (he’s surrounded by sand and blazing hot sun! Score 1 for realism.) The most revealing glimpse of flesh is of a heavily pregnant belly. I love that despite their sheltered existence inside Immortan Joe’s gilded cage the wives are determined, capable, strong in their own individual ways – they are not homogeneous, they have personalities, are clearly individuals. They move around the War Rig, help free the vehicle from the quagmire, get their hands dirty. They support one another, even when Cheedo breaks and, in an apparent moment of Stockholm Syndrome, tries to go back to her captors. She’s never ridiculed or made to look weak. They understand. They help each other. This film takes the sense of fraternity that often pervades male-driven films and extends it to women – they are a support network, they are in it together. I love that Angharad uses her heavily pregnant body to shield Max from Immortan Joe’s bullets – she knows the child inside her is what Joe truly values, and she uses this against him. I love that the wives have come from a place of victimhood and have transcended that – once out of the Citadel, they’re not the fragile little birds in need of rescuing that we might expect. They learn, they adapt and they cope. And they heal.
Speaking of healing…This is Max’s film, although he’s not the hero in the traditional sense. But this film is about him. It’s about Max’s realisation that he can’t do everything by himself. It’s about him trying to come to terms with his trauma by way of letting people in again, rediscovering his sense of compassion. Making amends for his perceived failure and redeeming himself through helping Furiosa attain her own redemption. It’s about Max’s journey from one state of being to another, and this is mirrored by Furiosa – who has, it seems, recently made this same transition herself. She’s a woman who was taken as a slave, who has risen to the rank of Imperator in a patriarchal society, attained a great deal of respect and some autonomy – we don’t know what she did to get there, but we know Furiosa is seeking redemption. She’s broken backs on her way to the top, and now it’s time to make amends. By the end of the film, it seems Max has found himself exactly where Furiosa started off. It’s a beautiful parallel and it’s done without any grandiloquent speeches or contrived attempts at tugging one’s heartstrings. He learns through observing, through participating, through the human experience. And like the wives, this experience helps him to start healing.
Furiosa is the heroine I’ve been longing for. She’s a super competent, intelligent, strong-willed woman who is allowed to be flawed – her fixation on a singular goal almost breaks her entirely when she realises it’s forever out of reach (and what a moment – she doesn’t weep or sink into Max’s arms but screams, long and loud. It’s not sadness but rage, a primal anger at the unfairness of it all.) She’s physically disabled – she appears to be a fetal amputee – but never once is this presented as an impediment, or something to be reviled or pitied. It’s never really addressed at all, in fact: she just happens to have a physical disability. It’s just a fact about her. How amazing is that? She’s not defined by her disability at all. In fact, there’s this fantastic moment in which Max is attempting to snipe a vehicle in the gloom of the quagmire. He misses two shots. There’s a single bullet left. Without hesitation, he hands the gun to Furiosa, who not only gets the bullseye but uses Max’s shoulder to steady her aim. And it’s worth noting that Furiosa’s superiority as a marksman is not a way of emasculating Max – it’s simply a fact of post-apocalyptic survival. She’s a better shot. Simple as that.
And talking of this kind of realism: the violence actually hurts in Mad Max. Violence is not presented as flashy and cool, with people bouncing back from bullet wounds and blows to the head. It hurts. It’s hell. And it’s destructive.
I also love Furiosa’s unapologetic lack of traditional ‘femininity’. Often in films, a non-feminine woman will either be presented as an object of ridicule, or will be tempered in some way almost as an apology for her lack of femininity – it’ll turn out she scrubs up well when put in a dress, or she finds the right man and ‘transforms’. It’s so refreshing to see Furiosa, with her bald head and androgynous clothing and big fucking truck being what society would define as ‘butch’ and never having to apologise for it. She is not dismissive of the ‘femme’ wives, does not revile them for their appearance or comparative ‘softness’ (although they can fight, and do they fight!) When she and Max fight it is as equals: no quarter is given because she’s a woman, nor is she shown as at an obvious disadvantage. And Max never gets the ‘you got beat by a girl’ treatment. He’s not emasculated because she kicks his arse as thoroughly as he kicks hers. She’s competent. He’s competent. It’s not a zero-sum game.
What else can I gush about? I love that there’s no big ‘love conquers all’ moment – Max and Furiosa become fire-forged friends, allies who understand each other’s value and importance to the world. When Max saves Furiosa’s life there’s no teary-eyed declaration of love: this is a man torn by the plight of someone he respects, someone he has grown to trust and like, a man who has had nobody but himself and is learning, all over again, how to open himself to others. He wants Furiosa to live because she has to live. Because she’s fought so hard and come so far and she can’t die now. Essentially, in that moment, he is the audience. He’s rooting for her just like us.
There’s a mutual affection between Nux and Capable (and again, a wonderful reiteration of the theme ‘we are not things’ – Nux, who has been trained from childhood to fight and who is effectively a pack dog living for the sole honour of dying in glory, and Capable recognising that in his own way, he has been used and devalued as much as they have. MRA’s pissed off about this film are missing a serious point about the disposability of young men in war.) Their entire arc is downplayed and it’s all the more effective for it – two damaged people who recognise something in one another and find some small comfort in that. Nux knows he’s dying. He just wants to die for a good reason. And he’s been brainwashed into thinking that a glorious death as cannon fodder for Immortan Joe’s cause – whatever that cause may be – is the end he deserves. There’s this entire horrifying kamikaze culture between the War Boys in which they huff chrome spray paint and, high on the fumes, demand that their death is ‘witnessed’ before they willingly give their lives, believing that they will be revered – that there will be a place in Valhalla for them. Reminiscent of modern-day suicide bombers, but also the blind, unquestioning faith in command of militaries the world over. Nux is disposable. Once Capable’s beauty and fertility wane, she too will be disposable – presumably to join Joe’s cattle-farm of lactating women. Capable’s refusal to prejudge Nux based on his initial allegiance allows him to discover his own inherent value as a person – and when he finally does sacrifice himself, it really does have meaning. (Nux asking Capable to ‘witness’ him, and Capable’s silent agreement, was a genuinely sad, sweet moment.)
Storytelling-wise, the film trusts the viewer to intuit much of the backstory and worldbuilding. There’s no Basil Exposition type character telling us all the little details (in fact, there’s precious little dialogue at all.) So much is implied, and it’s down to us to interpret and consider. Why does Joe have a vehicle in his convoy containing only a bunch of drummers, a wall of amps and a blindfolded guitarist on bungee cords, shredding on his flamethrower guitar? (aside from it being fucking brilliant) – there’s a historical precedent for drummers in warfare, and along with the huffing of spray paint it’s a way of keeping the adrenaline pumping and his disposable warriors ready for action. Nux’s illness? Lymph node tumours, night fevers, anaemia requiring transfusion – probably lymphoma, a death-sentence in his world, and judging by the attitude surrounding his sickness this probably isn’t an unusual thing among the War Boys. Highly suggestive of the presence of radiation. Max’s PTSD visions point to the death of his family prior to the film, and his guilt is tangible. Max being kept alive as a ‘blood bag’ suggests that, in this world, people are commodities – childbearers or milk-providers, War Boys, a host of ways in which humans are made ‘useful’. And out in the wider world, the Vuvalini – the badass biker women – realise the greater value of repairing the world as opposed to using it to control people. Who killed the world? People like Immortan Joe, who views the supply of water as a way of keeping the populace under his thumb. And what gives the world hope isn’t violence or control but nurture. Replanting. Building a new ‘green place’, in which people can thrive.
(Also, there was next-to-no CGI in this film – save for Theron’s amputated arm, the effects and stunts are all real, including those by the Vuvalini, some of whom are in their 70’s. Mind blown.)
I’ve likely missed a whole load of other things I loved about this film and will probably look back on this post in the days to come and think ‘damn, I should have written about x and y’ but honestly, this is enough rambling for now. Suffice to say it’s a fucking amazing film, I’m so glad it was made, so glad it smashed the box office and SO glad it’s pissed off the men’s right activist crew. More of this, please. SO much more.