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Content note: Some minor spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road ahead.
I went into this with only a vague interest in the newest addition to the almost-forgotten Mad Max franchise. I was curious, mainly because it seemed so stylish and so nostalgic and so unlike the bazillion reboots of a bazillion old intellectual properties upon which the entire big-money movie industry now seems to depend. It was being helmed by George Miller, the same dude* who presented us with the first three Mad Max films in 1979, 1981 (The Road Warrior) and 1985 (Beyond Thunderdome) and it is neither a reboot nor a true sequel, and I like deserts and sassy post-apocalyptic survival stories (obviously) so maybe there would be something here for me.
But then I kept hearing things, like that Fury Road is THE MOST AMAZING FILM IN FOREVER and is actually kind of feminist and also that there’s been some MRA backlash which seemed terrifically promising. Critics and reviewers are falling all over themselves raving about it, and friends incoherently encouraged me to see it, incapable of articulating more than that it is GREAT it is SO GREAT you just have to see how great it is!
So last night I did, and was likewise reduced to a lot of capslocked shouting on Twitter, and I seriously considered turning right around and buying a ticket to the next showing and seeing it again. I didn’t, but mostly because I was concerned my head might actually explode if I didn’t let at least a day pass before a second viewing.
Having thought about it overnight, I have calmed down enough today to list a few of the reasons this glorious film surprised me.
The title is totally misleading.
“Mad Max” is right there, in big letters. If you hadn’t read anything about this film beforehand -- hell, if you hadn’t even seen a trailer -- you would undoubtedly walk into the theater thinking this is a movie about a mad guy named Max, played by Tom Hardy. And in the beginning, the movie gently leads you down that path, as you’re treated to a brief prologue in which the titular Max goes on all dramatic-like in voiceover about how he’s seen some tragic shit and now the only thing he knows how to do is survive. And then he rather ostentatiously eats a two-headed lizard. And then a bunch of scary bad guys come cascading over a hill and this movie is fucking on.
So you’re sitting there in your theater seat, and you get to see this post-apocalyptic wasteland, and bad stuff happens to our presumed hero, and there’s a lot of fighty bald dudes around, one of whom is Nicholas Hoult, and oh look there’s Charlize Theron, maybe she’s a love interest or something? And then there is more driving and battling and general craziness and at some point the needle comes screeching off the record because you realize this movie is completely not about Mad Max but is really about Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and the women she is helping to escape from their lives as sex slaves and breeders for warlord/cult leader Immortan Joe and whaaaaaaat whaaaaaaat whaaaaaat what is HAPPENING HERE?
Tom Hardy barely talks in this movie. He has like ten lines and most of them are introductory voiceover. In fact, he doesn’t have that much screen time in which his face is unobscured, so it’s a stretch even to joke about him being there for eye candy. This is not a movie about him at all. As the plot hurtles screaming through the inconceivably vast desert landscape, Hardy’s Max mainly accepts direction from Furiosa, offers one (important, it turns out) idea for how to proceed, and the last crucial thing he does in the film is serve in the nurturing healer role usually reserved for women in these types of action-heavy stories. Yes, really.
Max is just our entrance to the real plot, which is about a group of women liberating themselves (and a much larger population of people) from the rule of a vicious and cruel warlord.
The Wives are distinct individuals.
Of course, the villain isn't going to just allow his favorite breeders to escape. So he marshals his forces to chase them down. In more predictable circumstances, Immortan Joe’s wives would be the film’s McGuffin with a side of sexy for a simple-minded male gaze. They’d be the pretty shiny objects everyone is fighting over, and not individuals with their own complex personalities and drives.
The Wives -- all having brilliant names like The Splendid Angharad, Capable, Toast the Knowing, The Dag, and Cheedo the Fragile -- are all conventionally beautiful women specially selected for Immortan Joe to repeatedly rape and impregnate, their primary value to him as producers of offspring. Splendid is pregnant at the time of the escape, and when she uses her body to shield Furiosa during a racing battle, knowing Joe won’t shoot her while she carries his fetus, he literally claws at the air and screams “MY PROPERTYYYYYY” just so the way-confused dudebros in the back row will get it.
Instead of playing right into the stereotype it purports to skewer, as so many well-intentioned films do, Fury Road refuses to let the wives all blend together in one pretty blur. It recognizes them as individuals. Being that this is not a film that relies overmuch on dialogue, most of this happens in small scenes, but each is memorable and distinct and each Wife is also a woman, somehow still unbroken by the grotesque horrors she’s had to endure. It’s absurd that it should be so rare for beautiful women in films like this is also have depth, but the fact is many action films only see them as idiots, footballs, or cold villainous bitches. Not here.
There is an old-lady biker gang called the Vuvalini.
I only noticed this because I was gobsmacked and unable to stand immediately after the film ended and wound up watching all the credits. THE VUVALINI. I’m choosing to believe this is a typo and the real name is actually Vulvalini, because it pleases me to do so, and I would really like a leather jacket with this embroidered on the back now.
Beyond the excellent name, it’s hugely thrilling to watch a group of older actresses, some of them in their 60s and 70s, playing roles in which they are not docile old ladies, or dotty grandmothers, or trapped in hospital beds. Melissa Jaffer, who plays the Keeper of the Seeds (and who keen-eyed nerds will immediately recognize as Noranti from Farscape) says that she and the other Vuvalini actresses did their own stunts, occasionally to the chagrin and dismay of the crew, which makes an impossibly cool thing even cooler, somehow.
Imperator Furiosa is never anything but a fighter and a leader.
There isn’t the slightest whiff of romance between Furiosa and anyone. This is not to suggest that romance is always bad, but in a film this gritty and unrepentantly aggressive, “romance” often serves the same purpose as comic relief, to temporarily lighten the mood and demonstrate a “softer side” to the usually male protagonist. In many cases, it's easy shorthand for actual character development.
But Furiosa’s relationship -- such as it is -- with Max is marked only by comradeship and mutual respect; they are warriors together and that is plenty intimate enough for the story’s purposes, as this is a world in which trust is in short supply. More to the point, Furiosa is not pretty, she is not sexy (at least not in a way intended to appeal to men), and there is no scene in which she gets sprayed with a firehose while wearing a white shirt so that we can be reminded that underneath it all, she is still a woman with breasts, and like all women, she is vulnerable before she is anything else.
Ironically, a version of this does happen to the Wives, but even then it manages not to be gratuitous, nor a coded signal of how weak and delicate they are. They are rinsing off after surviving a dust storm that took out a significant number of Immortan Joe's troops -- and at the same time using bolt cutters to remove the menacingly spiny-teethed chastity belts they’ve been confined in. Their posture, their faces all reflect that while the Wives are undeniably beautiful, and they may be in danger, they are also far from helpless.
This is a film in which a huge part of the plot is about women being repeatedly raped, yet there is no rape shown, suggesting that a thinking audience might be able to understand that rape and sex slavery are despicable and horrific without necessarily having to witness them happening, projected on a 30-foot screen, larger than life. Instead of rape, we see the consequences of rape.
Likewise, it’s clear that Furiosa has experienced some trauma, but we don’t know exactly what all of it is, and we don’t need to have it spelled out for us. The results are clear enough. And still, she is more than the abuse she has suffered, and she is not defined by it. Professional feminist (and frequently controversial figure) Eve Ensler, who has worked with women who have escaped real-life sex slavery throughout the world, consulted on the film, and ran workshops with the actresses during filming. I don’t know how much of the film’s success in this area is due to her efforts, but it succeeds nevertheless.
Fury Road is a beautiful film by any standard. On a technical level, it’s astonishing to watch and the action is unstoppable. There’s not a moment out of place, not a camera movement that isn’t perfectly measured, not a shot wasted. The stunts are actually stunts and not green-screen CGI, and the difference is palpable. The whole thing comes in at a precise 120 minutes and feels as though it is exactly as long as it needs to be.
Oh yes, and it tells the story of a band of intelligent, strong-willed and often violent women fighting to overthrow the horrific patriarchal system that has kept them enslaved and oppressed for an unknown number of years.
When I first heard that MRA-type dudes were enraged over this movie, I didn't understand how that could be -- if there’s action and outrageous stunts and explosions and fighting, what is there to complain about? Now I get it. The title character is practically an afterthought -- he is supportive to the real protagonists’ ultimate success, but in the end he is just another soldier in the story of Furiosa and the women who lead the action in the plot. Fury Road is magnificent not only because it is a well-made and compelling film, but because it proves that wildly entertaining blockbuster action movies and women’s stories told by stereotype-busting characters are not mutually exclusive ideas.
This is not the first movie to suggest such a thing. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Alien series is clearly the spiritual godmother to Furiosa and her compatriots. And I don’t know how many more films of this sort will need to demonstrate runaway success for people to stop arguing that women can’t lead an action-heavy film, or even if Fury Road will earn enough to make that point in a money-driven industry. I’m just overjoyed that it exists at all. And I will be seeing it again. Just probably in a day or two.
* Notably, Miller is also the man who helped bring the world both Babe and Babe: Pig in the City which goes to show that brilliant filmmaking is not bound by genre.