Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s fall film series Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes. For more information, visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Some say that characterization is lost in a film that is primarily action. While that may be true most of the time, it is not true in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller, continuing his Mad Max series which he began in 1979, provides something that is rather unique here: an action film that throws the audience into a unique world without set-up or long exposition, and lets the audience get to know the characters through their actions and some unexplained flashbacks that help to flesh out some motivation. There are no long soliloquies or any newcomers that need the situation explained, things happen and we work out what and why they’re happening while everything is occurring.
. . .with Miller’s spectacular direction, the meticulous stunt coordination by Lawrence Woodward, and stunning cinematography by the great John Seale and you get some of the most exciting car-based action sequences ever put together — and yes, I’m counting The Fast and the Furious franchise.
The story of this post-apocalyptic world is simply complex, centering on two major characters. First is Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy taking over the role from Mel Gibson, last seen in the series in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985) who is abducted and taken to The Citadel and used as a living “blood bag” for Nux (Nicholas Holt), a war boy for the warlord of The Citadel, Imorton Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain Toecutter in Mad Max in 1979). The war boys (and many others) are cancer-stricken and need regular infusions of blood in order to keep fighting for Imorton Joe, who is barely alive himself. Also working for Imorton Joe is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a driver of a war rig (a heavily armored and armed modified tanker) who goes on supply runs for The Citadel.
On a routine run to Gas Town and the Bullet Farm, Furiosa turns without warning, taking her war rig and her escorts off the main road into very hostile territory. The war boys on board the war rig question the decision but follow orders until a pursuit party is seen on their trail. In the pursuit part is Hux, who has convinced his superior to let him drive with his “blood bag,” aka Max, strapped to the front of his car, giving him his transfusion at the same time he’s seeking the glory of bringing Furiosa back to Imorton Joe.
The reason they are in pursuit is that Furiosa has absconded with Imorton Joe’s five sex slaves/breeding stock (or wives, if you want to try to put some kind of positive spin on his horrible behavior). It is vastly important to Imorton Joe to get them back, as one is pregnant and he wants to know if the child is (a) male and (b) cancer free. Eventually Max breaks free and joins up with Furiosa to get the women away from Imorton Joe.
Most of this information is relayed during action sequences, mostly revolving around driving and being attacked during fully mobilized pursuit. Miller peppers quiet scenes throughout the film and uses them for the audience and his characters to catch their breath. The quiet scenes aren’t wasted though. Miller uses them to give some detail to his characters that isn’t borne out of the action sequences. While we learn much of the plot in these quiet scenes, the real character building is done during the high-speed chases and hand-to-hand fights that make up the majority of the film.
Miller does here what he did in the best of the original Mad Max films, specifically Mad Max and The Road Warrior (known in its native Australia as simply Mad Max 2), which is make the characters’ true natures most evident when under a great deal of stress, instead of in long stretches of dialogue where they tell the audience all about themselves. We learn more about Max when he decides to help Furiosa during an attack than we ever would have if he’d have stopped and told her that he’s wary of helping people because the last time he tried it all went south (we get that through flashes of his past literally haunting him throughout the first half of the film). Miller’s screenplay, co-written with storyboard artist Brenden McCarthy and actor/acting director Nick Lathouris (both of whom have never had a screenplay credit before this film), gives the actors so much more to do by restricting the dialogue. It’s actually easy to imagine the film as a silent, with intertitles occasionally explaining a plot point; that’s how sparse and controlled the dialogue is, and that really works to the film’s advantage.
Couple that with Miller’s spectacular direction, the meticulous stunt coordination by Lawrence Woodward, and stunning cinematography by the great John Seale (who worked with Miller on Lorenzo’s Oil and also shot The English Patient and Rain Man amongst many others), and you get some of the most exciting car-based action sequences ever put together — and yes, I’m counting The Fast and the Furious franchise. Miller knows how to frame each and every shot to get the most emotion and suspense packed into the frame. Alternating between grandiose wide-shots to close-ups, he gives us the broadness and blandness of the landscape and the intense emotions of a one-on-one fight in quick succession of each other, almost like he’s saying that these struggles mean nothing to the land around the characters but everything to them. The oft-criticized sandstorm sequence reminds us that the earth could just swallow everyone up at a moment’s notice and end this whole endeavor.
While Theron steals the show, Hardy isn’t left with nothing to do. The two share the screen brilliantly and Max comes out as a man who seems to be constantly thwarted by his good intentions. . .
Then we come to the performances of Theron and Hardy. Each of them are world-weary and wary, but both have been formed from vastly different experiences. We know Max’s backstory, if this film is in the same continuity as the original trilogy — which Miller has said that it is and isn’t at the same time — taking place some 40 years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which is set something like 15 years after The Road Warrior, making Max somewhere in his 70s or so. Theron plays Furiosa as a deeply emotional and deeply scarred woman that has made herself be famously hardened and brutal. She uses that reputation and the seemingly unquestionable loyalty to Imorton Joe to subvert expectation and save the women he’s been brutalizing for years. While Theron steals the show, Hardy isn’t left with nothing to do. The two share the screen brilliantly and Max comes out as a man who seems to be constantly thwarted by his good intentions (which is true, given the events of the prior films).
Some criticize Mad Max: Fury Road as being mindless action with little else going for it. While those criticisms are few and far between, it’s worth noting how wrong that assessment is. It may be true that Miller has created a film that is largely two solid hours of non-stop action, but to say that there is nothing else going on is nonsense. It may not all be spelled out, but Miller trusted the audience to understand what was happening enough to build the character development into the action and if you’re not really paying attention to it, you could miss it.
The truly novel thing about Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t the way Miller brilliantly melds action and character development, though. It’s that Miller made a film with a woman as a lead that wasn’t sexualized or demeaned but was a person who was strong and vulnerable, and that the major plot was freeing objectified and abused women from their male oppressor. Yes, the “wives” of Imorton Joe are stunningly gorgeous women that are scantily clad, but Miller doesn’t objectify them. He lets them get dirty and show that they aren’t just pretty women, they are smart and willing to get into the fight to liberate themselves. Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of action and a testament to the indomitable will of women, showing that their true strength has always been the ability to put up with a male-dominated society while always hoping and working toward a society in which they will rightfully be treated equally. The sad thing is that it is a logical extension of our current society and not at all farfetched. Hopefully, when future generations watch this film, and they will, the novelty will be a male-driven society with women being subjugated and not that it is speaking out against such a society.
Director George Miller brilliantly melds action and character development in Mad Max: Fury Road, thanks in large part to the exceptional cinematography and the fantastic performances of Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy.