Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Dir. George Miller. Starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult

When the Fury Road fever was at its highest – I remember laying in bed, sweating through my pajamas with a temperature of 104, intermittently shrieking, “I live, I die, I live again!” – there was a fair bit of talk about how the movie might reasonably function as a “silent” film. You don’t have to watch more than two minutes or so of special features to get the drift; Miller uses the words “kinetic” and “nonverbal,” while others emphasize the approach of using comic book style cells rather than a more traditional script to guide them, while others speak on the ability of the movie to combine the talking and the action into one. There’s a phrase that’s reused by producers – “chase and race” – which sums up the film briefly and elegantly. I agree entirely with the filmmakers on this point. It’s a movie you feel in the back of your chair and in the armrests, one that pumps the blood faster and dilates the pupils, and that is a rare gift when most big-budget blockbusters prize the lore of their original text over the lure (oooh) of telling an electric story. Fury Road takes an enormous risk in its first ten minutes. An unnamed man eats a two-headed lizard, flips his car trying to escape from unnamed figures in their own strange cars, tries to run away from a horde of thin men painted white in endless caverns, and then is dragged back to their strange underworld in the cliffs; all of this is interspersed with half-second images of characters we do not see otherwise in this movie. Title card.

Where many movies would try to explain themselves immediately after such a visceral start, Fury Road does not. Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his strange sons are introduced, although we know nothing of them short of the command positions they hold and the poor health most of them seem to be in, including the Immortan himself. “Aqua-Cola” is released from great pipes onto a filthy, mutated crowd of skin-and-bone people. Charlize Theron has a boy’s haircut and black grease covering her face from eyes to hairline. By my watch, Fury Road takes a good half-hour to even begin explaining itself; it’s not until the wives appear that the story adds some oxygen to its atmosphere, at which point we start suckin’ it down like the Immortan himself. Before that point, we’ve gotten some sensational car chase footage and sequences that are just unparalleled; even little moments where the cars don’t matter, as when we get a medium shot of the Immortan driving and then an immediate cut to close-up, are stunning. The first time I saw Furiosa run the war rig into a car to send it into the vortex – upon which it explodes, of course – I was stunned. I’m still dumbfounded by that sequence, which is underlined with orchestral music totally different from the tone that the Doof Warrior and the drummers set a few minutes back. It’s enough to make you agree with Nux: “What a day!” What a lovely day!”

When you’ve decided to let images rather than dialogue run the story in your movie, then you’ve opened up a really fascinating door to using words as ambience. Words are ambience fairly often for Paddy Chayefsky, Aaron Sorkin, Diablo Cody, and other name-brand screenwriters. (Unsurprisingly, the best those writers look are in movies which can carry in ambience from outside the words: Network and The Social Network and, well, I’m still waiting for a really good Cody movie.) The disadvantage is that the words are doing double duty in that case, since they have to move the story and explain it while it happens, which is one of my hang-ups with Sorkin television shows; the walk-and-talk is famous, but there’s nothing beautiful or moving about a tracking shot under fluorescent lights. In Fury Road words have no such boundaries, and so they are part of the scenery. In our first encounter with Nux, hooked up to his “blood bag,” he shrugs off his friend, Slit, who says quite rationally, “If you can’t stand up, you can’t do war!” Nux’s reply is one for the ages, even though it sounds like dialogue tapped from a Tom Clancy video game. “If I’m going to die,” he says, “then I’m going to die historic on the fury road!” It’s a line which teaches us as much about Nux as the image of him eating a bug off of Capable does. It does not have to be thick with meaning; all it needs is to be shoutable, and if it favors an adjective instead of an adverb to sound cool, then I’m all for it. The religion, such as it is, of the War Boys is simple enough. Die in combat and go to a special warriors’ heaven, aptly named Valhalla. Most of Nux’s lines in the first half of the movie, before he puts his chips in with the wives, reference Valhalla in some way, either specifically or via the ceremonial action he cannot complete. We find out that one spraypaints one’s mouth silver (“shiny and chrome!”) before committing some violent, destructive suicide; others “witness” the event. There is no Bible for the War Boys, no fanservice for moviegoers who want to see what they already know. This is new and comprehensible and a little ethereal, just like the majority of the dialogue in the first half of the movie. Or maybe it’s mostly a boy problem.

The women in this movie, from Furiosa to the wives to the surviving Vuvalini, are far more capable of self-expression than Max, who comes with two strikes against him already. First, he’s got a muzzle on for twenty-odd minutes, and second, he’s played by the Monarch of Mumblers, Tom Hardy. Some of the wives are not talkative types; Splendid, Capable, and Cheedo the Fragile don’t have much to say. Toast the Knowing and the Dag become more talkative as the movie goes on. Toast is as dry as the desert they’re driving across, while the Dag is thoughtful and breathless. The Dag even discovers a sense of humor when Max comes to the women on motorcycles and tells them they should go to the Citadel, not across the sand. “I thought you weren’t insane anymore,” she says in a tone of genuine concern. Furiosa is no more talkative than Splendid or Capable, really, but she’s the one in charge. Her sentences don’t have punctuation beyond periods. The look on her face while she drives the war rig – calm, after driving all night, or deliberate, ramming a car out of the way with her giant vehicle – tells us much more about her thoughts than she would express with nouns and verbs. When she discovers that the green place has been obliterated, that she and her troop have already passed it, her cry as the sand swirls around her is totally wordless.

Losing Nux isn’t a shocking turn of events, but after watching him develop into a real person over the course of the movie, energetic and sensitive and, in Furiosa’s succinct definition, “reliable,” it’s still emotional to watch him flip the war rig as he recedes from Capable while she accelerates from him.

Miller can’t help himself here; Nux is lit up with flames as a sort of immediate and potentially even eternal foreshadowing, which is harsh. “Witness me,” he says hoarsely, which Capable does. He then ensures their safety for good; he got his wish to drive the war rig, but surely his wish did not involve flipping the beast on its head.

(That’s a real-life truck being flipped upside down, incidentally; George Miller panicked at first because he thought the stunt driver had been badly hurt, when in fact it was the Nux dummy which got the worst of the crash.) Fury Road ends a few minutes later, with the crowd cheering Furiosa and Aqua-Cola for all distributed and Max, as is wont, disappearing into the morass. But to me, the movie reaches a pinnacle here, the kind of pensive emotional climax which is so unusual in contemporary movies anyway. Finding it in what is nominally a summer popcorn flick is even more surprising, and in the end that shock makes Nux’s death as stirring as any death I’ve seen in a movie in a very long time. It’s the power of this tremendous tonal shift, the chemical letdown which comes from knowing that two-hour car chase is coming to its end, and a genuine affection for the people on screen which is one of the great treasures of cinema. In short, it’s the sum total of all our reactions to the movie, from the first “Witness me!” to the final “Witness me,” and it is a devastating, glorious catharsis.

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