Thursday, July 16, 2015

movie review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max
(USA, 2015)
directed by George Miller

We saw this with friends who had already seen it in the theatre but were willing--actually, eager!--to see it again. After the movie was over, I could understand why.

I can think of only one other movie experience that left me with such a feeling of exhilaration, and that was Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. When I left the theatre after Death Proof, I felt like someone had pumped me full of adrenaline; I felt the exact same way after Mad Max: Fury Road. The two films actually have a fair amount in common: 1) they're both centred around fast, loud, powerful vehicles, and 2) the main characters are all smart, strong women trying to survive pursuit by a violent man.

In Fury Road, the leader of the group is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has facilitated the escape of a group of sex slaves, "The Wives," from their captor, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe is the violent, power-hungry ruler of the Citadel, a brutal, ghastly city-state in the film's post-apocalyptic society. The job of the sex slaves is to produce heirs for Joe, and future warrior-leaders for his army.

We are introduced to this world through the eyes of Mad Max (Tom Hardy), who is captured despite his most valiant efforts and held prisoner to do duty as a living blood bank for Joe's army of Warboys. The movie's visuals are mesmerizing throughout, but they are especially compelling in the beginning. The desert Max comes from is bleak, and the world he is taken to is violent and ugly. In the opening scenes, the camera often jolts and shudders; the film is frequently sped up and choppy. Despite how it sounds, this effect is never used gratuitously, but rather to highlight Max's panicked mental state.

Fortunately for Max, being a mobile blood bank is only the beginning of his journey. Essentially, Fury Road is a quest narrative. It has all the elements:

1. a protagonist
2. a journey
3. group of loyal helpers
4. desired object (in this case, a place)
5. obstacles along the way
6. final battle
7. achievement of goal

The interesting thing about Fury Road is that it starts out by making the audience think the protagonist is Max, but really, the protagonist is Furiosa. After he is rescued by Furiosa, Max transitions seamlessly from the focus of our attention to the periphery; he goes from protagonist to helper.

Fury Road passes the Bechdel Test beautifully and features multiple strong female characters who exhibit plenty of agency. It's well-filmed, well-paced, and over the top in a really enjoyable way. It is the most unabashedly feminist action movie I've seen for quite some time, and what I particularly liked about it was that the female representation was not just limited to ONE strong woman character. This is a problem with many, many movies that want to make the claim for being feminist. It's just not enough to have ONE woman in a film, no matter how strong she is, if she rarely or never interacts in a meaningful way with other women. In Fury Road, we not only have Theron's fantastic Furiosa; we have many, many strong and intelligent female characters determined to take back their destiny and create a better world for themselves and their progeny.

Both Max and Furiosa are perfectly cast. Hardy and Theron embody their characters with strength and determination; the characters clearly respect each other. Also, spoiler alert, I really appreciated there was no stupid romantic storyline between them. I imagine it'll be a long time before that happens in an action movie again. The supporting actors are also excellent: Nicholas Hoult is very good as Nux, a fearless Warboy who ends up being less brainless than it seems at first glance. The group of women escaping from Joe are also given agency, and despite the movie's generally limited dialogue, each is given an individual personality. The other characters met along the journey (I don't want to give too much away) are also strongly and memorably drawn in the movie's efficient shorthand.

I totally recommend Mad Max: Fury Road if you are looking for an action movie with some brain and a lot of brawn. Because fear not--even though there's some thinkiness and social commentary in here, there are also a lot of satisfying explosions and car crashes!

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