Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

"My name is Max."

Those are both the first and final words spoken by Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) in Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth chapter in George Miller's post-apocalyptic mythology. Max doesn't say much in Fury Road, partly due to circumstances--a metal grate attached to his face, or intense car chase sequences not suitable for small talk--but mostly due to his character: he is a man of great action and few words. His weary-but-sharp eyes reveal much of the complicated soul inside this weathered road warrior.

Max is quickly caught up in circumstances beyond his control, captured by a marauding gang from the Citadel, a desert butte-turned-fortress ruled by the depraved Immortan Joe, a disturbing villain who has set himself up as a deity ruling over the War Boys--his gang--and the suffering crowds below his elevated stronghold. When one of Joe's best warriors/drivers, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), takes off with a war rig and his harem of wives used for breeding, it sets off the chase sequence which makes up the bulk of the film. Essentially, Fury Road is an extended chase sequence, with Furiosa and Co. on the run from Joe's War Boys, various vehicular gangs, and the desert environment itself. Ever the loner, Max finds himself on the side of Furiosa and the liberated women in their search for a hope and redemption in a new, greener home.

I don't often make such expansive claims, but I'll do so here: Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the top 10 action films I've ever seen, and even a significant, historic addition to the action pantheon, fitting nicely alongside Die Hard, Hard Boiled, and Terminator 2 as action films that will stand the test of time as influential and groundbreaking. The design, the art direction, the choreography, the cinematography, the story, the world-building--every aspect of Fury Road is exceptional and valuable. There's not a single wasted scene, and this is the epitome of the motto "show, not tell." Fury Road is incredibly cinematic, a visual smorgasbord both beautiful and harsh in its palette. The performances are outlandish where they need to be, but often are quietly affecting, especially Theron as Furiosa. She truly is the star of the film, a powerhouse of femininity and strength, and a perfect partner in survival with Max. Filmmaker George Miller can move quickly from elaborate overhead shots of the desert landscape, to intense and gritty action moments alongside the vehicles, to intimate close-ups of the human face, particularly the eyes. This visual rhythm makes Fury Road both intimate and sweeping in scope--it's both ridiculously huge, and authentically accessible.

The best word to describe Mad Max: Fury Road is exceptional: uncommon, atypical, remarkable, freakish, outstanding, unique, special. I still cannot believe a Hollywood studio would pay to make this, sending movie stars and inane vehicles into the desert to get blown up. To put it bluntly, Fury Road is batsh*t crazy in the best way possible. Example: one vehicle in Immortan Joe's war party is essentially a stack of amps and speakers carrying four enormous drums and a blind maniac strapped by bungee cords who plays a flame-throwing electric guitar. If that sounds bizarre, yet intriguing...well, this is Mad Max, a steampunk-meets-Revelation action flick. Also, in a film genre where women are typically relegated to being sex objects or sidekicks--the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron hullabaloo is indicative of this propensity--Fury Road gives women agency, character, significance, and intelligence, all while retaining their femininity. Furiosa and Max are peers and partners; their relationship is no budding romance, but instead is marked by a growing care, empathy, and even friendship that compels Max to remain at Furiosa's side through thick and thin. And he's at her side, not the other way around.

The Mad Max films are unique as post-apocalyptic action narratives, and I appreciate how Max is always the reluctant protagonist, a wounded person reeling more from his personal tragedy than the world gone to hell. In each Mad Max film, he's caught up in circumstances where it initially has little or no agency to cause significant change, but eventually accepts his role in the narrative as someone able to heal and save others, even if he cannot save himself. He's never looking for trouble or on some mission; he's just wandering this world of fire and blood, angry and dejected, until some larger communal struggle pulls him into its center and he becomes a hesitant-but-eventually-willing savior. The Mad Max films remind us we can never survive and wholly live entirely in isolation. Max always ends up in some sort of community and embraced. True life beyond mere survival can only be experienced in the context of relationship. Yet despite the significant of community, Max also reminds us that the wilderness-both literal and spiritual--is often a lonely place. These deserts of personal pain are normative, and even healthy to navigate alone. Max is a man who has experienced great personal pain and trauma; he is the walking wounded. Max's journey towards healing becomes an ongoing dialogue between solitude and communal life. As he embraces community to liberate and redeem those who are lost, he, too, finds healing and redemption. 

I don't think it's an accident that Max is a "blood bag" to those who are dying in Fury Road, a universal donor whose very existence in this world of death can bring about restoration and new life. Fury Road is a sort of "reversed exodus" story, the movement of a small band of liberated people who end up returning to their place of captivity in order to start afresh. They discover the home they seek is right where they started, but only when that home is freed from tyranny and depravity. For Max and Furiosa, the only way to truly go home is through the long journey into the wilderness, akin to Walter Brueggeman's spirituality of the Psalms and its movement from orientation to disorientation to new orientation. Then the cycle continues, spiraling into greater depths as individuals and communities experience both great loss and hope. Mad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling picture of this spiritual cycle, as well as the best action film of the year (perhaps the decade). 

He is Max. "Max" means the ultimate, the limit, the intensity, the most. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly lives up to his name.

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