Oscar season is almost upon us and even though I don’t really believe the awards themselves or the furor that surrounds them are typically worth it, this year something did occur that brought some interest back into the awards for me. Normally the academy selections are the typical Citizen Kane pretentious or “Oscar-Bait” style options; dominated by dramatic roles and established directors these are the films you can tell from the trailers are aiming for Oscar. In 2015 however something strange happened. The best-reviewed film and dark horse money maker wasn’t from the big-star, known-director, Hollywood awards factories, but from a series previously known for its camp over-the-top styling. This year Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated for multiple awards, including best Picture and Director.
Ever since I saw the film I’ve been saying it is the best film I’ve seen in a decade, perhaps of the 2000s. Everything about it is marvelously subtle, layered, and complex while maintaining an overall structure that is simple. George Miller made a movie that is as shallow or deep as the audience wants it to be. For those wanting purely shallow action, Fury Road provides that from minute one and almost never lets up during its run time. For those wanting a deeper experience…there has rarely been a movie in recent memory offering such intense world-building and character development, but without cramming into the audiences face with forced scenes and exposition.
For the next three weeks I’ll be looking at why Fury Road became the most unique film of 2015, why it was so highly reviewed, and why I believe it deserves to win (though it almost certainly and sadly won’t) every award for which it’s nominated. Starting with the basics: The Characters.
Creating Story Through People – The Characters of Mad Max: I’ve heard complaints that the plot to Fury Road is paper thin. Anyone who believes this apparently only saw the surface and somehow missed the dozens of plots upon plots built into the incredible world Miller created for the movie. Most of these center not around the main story idea but the individual stories each of the main characters tells as the narrative progresses. It’s the kind of character development and storytelling other writers, even ones I respect, only wish they could accomplish. Here Miller does so with remarkable clarity and subtlety; again allowing the audience to get as little or as much as they want from them.
Max Rockatansky: This was the role that made Mel Gibson but it has found new life in Tom Hardy. Those familiar with Mad Max’s story (like me those of us who grew up with the films) will be interested to see how the character has both changed and remained the same. Everything we need to know about Max’s history is given in a brief opening narration and during guilt-ridden hallucinations he experiences during the film. The opening narration is the only directly spoken exposition in the movie (exposition not masterfully woven into the dialogue or actions) and it is told so artfully it doesn’t feel like exposition. Max has been reduced to a man of solitude and instinct. He wants only to survive at this point. He’s helped people in the past and either paid for it with his own pain and torment or failed and watched them suffer. Now he exists on his own, wanting nothing to do with the awful world around him or its people. It’s interesting to see how his back story has changed from the original films. In the first Mad Max he is still a road cop in a post-apocalyptic world. His wife and infant are killed by a motorcycle gang, causing him to go on his revenge spree. Here we see an older daughter run down by massive vehicles mixed in with other characters who torment Max for not saving them. Veteran Max fans will wonder if Miller has altered Max’s back story or, given the method and appearance of these flashbacks, if Max has simply twisted his own history over the years of isolation. Max’s plot is one interwoven throughout the rest of the story. He experiences it, he doesn’t drive it. I’ve asked in previous posts, who are we in this film? In Fury Road we are Max. Miller constructed him to be our nameless, silent protagonist. The one through whom we act while surrounded by dozens of other more unusual and animated characters. Max is the perfect protagonist. He isn’t “born special,” he’s not a chosen one, he doesn’t gain any super powers. He’s not the best at everything and more than once meets his match. Max just has an overwhelming will to survive, and that carries him through and makes him a hero. During the story Max finds his voice and even his ability to trust again and, maybe even achieves a little…redemption. Despite what some audiences claim he IS the main character. He has simply been moderated to be less extreme, and therefore more relatable than anyone else in the movie.
Furiosa: Even before I saw the film I heard nonsense controversy of how the movie was pandering to feminists because of Max’s perceived reduced role and new character Furiosa’s expanded role. This isn’t the case (and even if it was George Miller can tell any story he wants…to those who say Mad Max has always been a “guy film” whatever that actually means, I’m forced to quote Jim Sterling, “I think they forgot who run Bartertown…) but Furiosa, played wonderfully by Charlize Theron, is definitely the most compelling new character I’ve seen on film in ages. She is a female Max, but Max prior to his self-imposed isolation. She still wants to help others, and if it hurts an awful warlord in the process even better. Furiosa is loaded with character. She’s a one-armed trusted lieutenant, or “imperator” of the main villain, The Immortan Joe. She steals his precious wives from him in an effort to take them to safety and at the same time severely cripple him and his evil empire. Her actual motivations are left mysterious beyond the obvious “rescue the wives” surface story, however you can tell there is more to her and her story with Joe. She, like Max, is tough, resourceful, thoughtful, and wily. Furiosa isn’t “treated” like actions films treat women. She isn’t a victim, nor is she the cliched tough girl. In a terrific piece of equalizing gender roles, her sex is completely ignored. She’s not a woman, just Imperator Furiosa, respected and feared by her crew and Immortan Joe’s Warboys. Her fight scene with Max is one of the best I’ve seen in ages, it’s fast, vicious, and again removes all gender roles. Furiosa is brutal and heartless during the scene, and tries her hardest to kill Max, only being prevented by bad luck and Max’s deception. Max, for his part brutally fights back, with only the last vestiges of his “good guy” mentality preventing him from killing her when he has the chance. Furiosa’s back story is told in vague comments, but you can tell it’s there, written behind the scenes, and portrayed with pain and smoldering anger by Theron. Audiences showed up for the Mad Max name…but left marveling at Furiosa.
The Immortan Joe: Joe is possibly one of the most intimidating villains of the millennium (I’ll have to update my post on the subject…) Portrayed by Hugh Keays-Byrne (who incidentally also portrayed “Toecutter” the main antagonist of the original Mad Max) Joe is both mysterious and over-the-top. His motivations are clearer than anyone’s, he wants his wives back because, like all kings he wants a healthy male heir, but his back story is very much left to visual cues and inference. He’s aging, but has various life-support systems and armor mimicking strength, so he is both weakening but powerful. He is adorned with medals and carries scepters of office, insinuating military background. Joe runs the Citadel, how he came to power is a mystery during the film (expanded in the comic series, however) and why he holds so much sway over the population and even the other warlords is clear, literally: Joe controls the water and like his escaped wife Toast the Knowing states, “Because of that he controls all of us.” Joe’s role is interesting because as he leads his war party in the chase to retrieve his wives, he clearly wants to be as merciless as possible…but can’t simply blow away Furiosa and her war rig because he doesn’t want to kill his most precious resource, his brides and their potential healthy sons. He’s odious in his mentality and appearance, making him one of the most effective villains in recent memory and his relentless at-all-costs pursuit of Furiosa and Max quite literally drives the movie. He will never stop hunting them, so our need to escape with the protagonists is both dire and seemingly hopeless. A terrific narrative needs a terrific villain and The Immortan Joe more than fits the bill.
Nux: Perhaps the most interesting of all is the warboy Nux portrayed by Nicholas Hoult. Nux starts as a dying “half-life warboy,” one of Joe’s countless soldiers. It’s because of Nux and his desire to die gloriously that Max gets involved in the first place, hooked to Nux’s pursuit vehicle as a mobile IV. Nux’s arc, however, transcends even Max’s or Furiosa’s. He begins as a single-minded fanatic of Joe’s invented cult, spouting the scriptures and fervent in his belief (more about the cult next week…) but through just one action, when Joe’s escaped wife Capable shows him kindness, perhaps for the first time in his life, he sees a whole new world. In many ways Nux is the manic side of the audience’s experience of this world as Max is their film’s relatable surrogate. Nux represents the typical resident of a dusty, desolate world, where anything different or remarkable, even if brutal or horrifying, is considered wonderful. During the story we see him go from fanatic warboy, to obsessed soldier, to hopeless outcast, to sympathetic ally. His story is in many ways the most compelling and has the most stark and interesting path. If you aren’t a fan of Nux by the climax of the film you weren’t paying attention at all…
The Five Wives: Miller designed them to essentially be one unit of five each with distinct personalities and roles. The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington Whiteley) is their very-pregnant leader, Capable (Riley Keough) the second in command and most diplomatic of them, Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz) tough, resourceful, and unyielding in her desire for freedom, The Dag (Abbey Lee Kershaw) mysterious but perceptive and sardonic, and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eston) the youngest and most easily led but who finds her independence on the journey. These characters could have easily just been a mere McGuffin for the plot, instead Miller created distinct roles and even arcs for each. The sacrifices and small stories of each, as they either give everything during the journey, learn about the world or themselves, and/or find a place they never knew they could have tells a story even beyond one of escape. Their story is perhaps the most hopeful and they make the most profound statements of the film and give important messages to modern society: “You Cannot Own a Human Being” and “Who Killed the World?”
Miller characters go far beyond what is typical for modern action film. They are complex without endless, needless, artificial dialogue-based exposition and they all have their own stories tightly interwoven with the main story. Next week will be a look at the main plot and the incredible depth with which the world was created.