Monday, May 18, 2015

'Mad Max: Fury Road' Is the Feminist Rage Movie We Deserve


Mad Max: Fury Road is very literally like nothing you've ever seen.

I know that a lot of movies make that claim, but I'm here to tell you that, no, seriously, this movie is like nothing you have ever seen. Forget the eighties Road Warrior movies, forget your average Hollywood action-adventure blockbusters, forget your dystopian exploitation flicks, Mad Max: Fury Road is nothing short of revolutionary.

With that having been said, however, I should probably put a warning right here that says "If you do not want to see images of extreme violence, brutality, and casual disregard for human life, you really shouldn't watch this film." Because do not mistake me. Mad Max: Fury Road is a freaking revelation, but it's also really hard to watch because parts of it are just plain gross, and the whole thing plays with your insides and tension and adrenaline. So if you're at all weak stomached or just thinking that your life will be complete if you never get to see a man's eyes burned out, then you might want to skip it. Or wait until it airs on television and catch the edited version.

I should also point out that talking about this film without spoiling it is virtually impossible, so SPOILERS from here on out.

Okay. That's over with. Now let's talk about how this movie is pee-your-pants amazing.

If you have even a passing familiarity with the Road Warrior franchise, George Miller's dystopian road saga from the eighties that starred a pre-crazy Mel Gibson, then you already know a lot more about Mad Max: Fury Road than the movie assumes you do. The film figures that no one in its audience saw the original, and therefore sets up its premise in the shortest possible way. In other words, the only exposition in this entire film is three sentences at the beginning that tell us three basic things. 

1. This is Max. He used to be a cop.
2. The world is an apocalyptic wasteland where oil and water are scarce.
3. Everyone is insane.

That's it, and then we're thrust into the story alongside Max (Tom Hardy). Max is a feral, a lone road warrior who suffers from post-traumatic hallucinations of dead people, and he's not actually very good at it. We meet him mere seconds before he is run down and captured by the War Boys, servants of a warlord who goes by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max was picked up because he's healthy and he had supplies - his role is not to be recruited as another War Boy, but rather to serve as their human blood bag. War Boys are all soldiers who have been exposed to fatal amounts of radiation and are already dying. They need non-poisoned blood to stay alive, and Max is O-.

In other words, the movie starts out with a revolutionary statement. Our protagonist for this film is not a righteous warrior or some great hero called to write the wrongs of injustice. No, instead we're following a legitimately crazy person whose only purpose in society is to act like a human dialysis machine.*

We do get to see Max's great escape attempt, however, so we know from the beginning of the film that Max is somewhat competent. He gets pretty far out of his chains before the sheer number of War Boys, the physical structure of the Citadel where he's being kept, and Max's own treacherous brain force him back into captivity. So while Max spends the first half hour or more of the film absolutely chained up, we do know he's a little useful when free.

But the real interesting thing here is that Max's involvement in the story is sort of a bait-and-switch. He might be the protagonist of our tale, but he's not the hero. That honor belongs to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Immortan Joe's chief servants. 

She's a badass with a cybernetic arm and some hardcore eyeliner action going on (The Winter Soldier would be jealous) who is sent out on a mission to get fuel and bullets for the Citadel. Except before she gets to the Bullet Farm or Gas Town, Furiosa turns her war rig off the road and starts heading East. Why? Who the hell knows.

Other than Immortan Joe, that is. He immediately senses what has happened, though it takes us in the audience another half hour or so to figure it out. Furiosa has stolen Immortan Joe's breeders. At least that's how he puts it. But from the graffiti in the breeder's holding area, which reads "PEOPLE ARE NOT THINGS" and "OUR BABIES WILL NOT BE WARLORDS", it's pretty clear that these women left on their own.

Still, Immortan Joe isn't exactly the sort of reasonable guy who will take this as an answer, so he sends the entirety of his war fleet after Furiosa and her convoy. And that's how Max gets entered into this story. Not because he's recruited as a driver, oh no, but because when the signal goes out he is attached to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a particularly fervent War Boy who refuses to stay back from the battle just because he's hooked up to a blood bag. So Nux and his partner strap Max to the front of their rig like a masthead, and go off in pursuit of Furiosa.

That's right, the main character of our franchise enters into the plot of this film chained to a pole and dragged unwillingly into battle while being drained of his blood. It's great.

As you might have guessed from the previews, or just from the fact that this movie is two hours long, there are a lot of long car chase scenes and even more long road carnage moments. The world they've created for this film is seriously spectacular, with one entire sequence taking place inside a gigantic dust storm of radiation and lightning, and another part involving a battle at night on mud flats. It's intense and amazing and I love it.

The real heart of the movie, though, comes when Max, having decided that he really doesn't want to die in an explosion when Nux plans on going suicide bomber on the convoy, crashes the car and winds up waking up in the sand right next to Furiosa and her convoy. The epic three way fight that happens next is legendary, but the real meat is where Max and Furiosa enter into a tentative truce. He will help her and the women get away, simply because he also would like to get away.

Literally no other reason. And while there is a long lingering shot of very attractive women in very little being doused with water, we are actually shown very clearly that Max's lingering gaze in those moments has nothing to do with the women and everything to do with their water. In other words, this is not a movie where some big macho guy comes in and saves the poor scared women. Not at all. And Max is definitely not motivated by lust or physical attraction or even (definitely not in this franchise) love. He just wants to get the hell out of here. It's unclear he even sees the women as attractive at all, or if that's something else that the world has beaten out of him.

At any rate, Max and Furiosa strike their very tentative bargain, which involves Max helping them all get to "the green place", which is some area out east where the land is fertile and wet enough to actually grow food. Furiosa knows it exists because it was her home once, until she was stolen, and she's desperate to get back. As for the women she's taking along, as she explains it, they need hope and she needs redemption.

Redemption for what is actually never expressed, which is yet another example of how this film doesn't really bother with exposition. Unless the topic is something that would naturally come up in conversation, no one ever explains it. So the origin and motivations of the War Boys and Immortan Joe? Never made explicit. Since they themselves would never explain it - who would they explain it to? - we the audience never need to know. And the movie works fine with that. It allows us to take the story at face value.

But it also helps to immerse us in the story. Because we are never given some long and meaningful speech about how the breeders are women who deserve to be free, and rather just shown who Immortan Joe is as a person and who they are, we come to agree with that standpoint on our own. Which is more powerful as a form of storytelling. Like Max, we first greet the breeders with a sort of confusion and "what the hell are you doing in the middle of the desert?" As time goes on, however, the breeders begin to become real people to us, all of whom have real and meaningful reactions to the abuse and trauma they have experienced.

We have The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Immortan Joe's favorite rape victim, and a woman who has turned to hope and inspiring others in order to get out alive. Then there's Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), who is much more cynical and open about her frustrations with the world. Toast is also the one who first grabs onto the idea of actually fighting for her own survival and has the best sense of humor. 

Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) is the breeder who most represents a woman whose mind has been broken by her abuser, being the first to wish to go back and just beg mercy from Joe. She's the one who has trouble conceiving of a world and a life outside of her abuse, and therefore wants it back. Her journey in the movie is the most emotionally affecting for this reason.

Personally, I liked The Dag (Abbey Lee) best, because she is the one who most strongly wonders what they will do and how they will live now, but that's really just a personal preference. Capable (Riley Keough) has her moments too - especially when she hunkers down and gives Nux the one thing he's always needed in his life, the benefit of the doubt.

I mention all of these women and their characters because, honestly, going into this movie I didn't really expect much on their front. While I'd heard that Eve Ensler (writer of the Vagina Monologues) had consulted on the film, I still wasn't sure what to think of a movie that revolves around custody of a group of supermodels. Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to find that the movie takes that question very seriously: who are these women and what do they want? While most post-apocalyptic movies like this would make the women a joke or a macguffin, this film explicitly deals with their place in society.

Yes, the women have led a comparatively privileged existence. They have been given good food and beautiful furnishings that no one else has access to. But the price for that has been their constant degradation and rape. They are kept in a closed room and a closed world so that a warlord can rape them and force them to have his children. Their existence, for all that it is prettier than others, is horrifying, and their desire to escape it at any cost does not make them victims, it makes them heroes.

That their primary savior is a woman is also worth noting, because it becomes clear from their interactions that Furiosa is really the first person these women knew who treated them like human beings and not "things". Joe refers to them as possessions, but Furiosa sees them as people. And it's also worth noting that Furiosa largely relates this to her background. She was raised in a matriarchal society where women are responsible, capable, and appreciated. So she had a framework in which to understand these other women.

Max, we must understand, doesn't really get the breeders. He likes them about as much as he likes anybody (not much), but he doesn't seems to grasp their plight until he learns more about them as people. This seems, however, not to so much be a function of Max being a terrible person, but more as a statement on how, when we live in a society that devalues and objectifies women, we pick up on that whether we want to or not. Max's slowly changing worldview is simply the result of exposure to other human beings.

There's so much more I could say about this film. It's beautifully shot, which is impressive considering the aggressive ugliness of much of the story, and it really goes to town with the "everyone is insane" thing. There are some moments of sheer lunacy that will make you grin and others that will make you (understandably) cringe. The camerawork is especially impressive, as it never lets you forget exactly how crazy Max is. Sometimes the film will speed up to show that Max is having a fit, or other times the filters will go weird and we'll get things shot like we're on acid. Because, you know, insane.

But for all that the filming and set and costumes are fun and interesting, the heart of the film is and remains these women who want the right to determine their own lives. Women who desire to make a better world, one without enforced scarcity. And about how men can be allies to these women. Both Max and Nux must go through transformations of mind and soul in order to join the women on their quest. They are useful only once they have come to see the women as human beings who deserve the right to live on their own terms. And that's powerful.

Look, I talk a lot of crap about pop culture, but the reason I do it is because I want movies like this to happen. I want more films like Mad Max: Fury Road, which is everything I demand films be. It's well made, well written, full of extremely talented actors doing a good job. It's imaginative, unique, surprising, and perfectly edited. But most of all, it's about a story we've never heard before and one we need to hear. It's about the erasure and objectification of women and how that damages society as a whole. Mad Max: Fury Road is proof that it's possible to make a feminist blockbuster that blows your socks off with how good it is.

Now no other film has an excuse.


*Which is also a plot in The 100. What is it with post-apocalyptic societies and curing radiation poisoning with human slaves?

6 comments:

  1. I do find myself wondering how this world can possibly be short of water when they can just irrigate it with dudebro tears.

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  2. Well, I've seen it now. And it tickles me silly that there are even more cool women in it than the wailing and gnashing of teeth of internet misogynists suggested. Seriously, I didn't expect a second posse of women to join up for the final fight - especially welcome given that many of them were elderly or middle-aged.

    It did strike a sour note for me in that Furiosa apparently didn't see the need to save the less conventionally attractive women hooked up to the milking machines. But that was somewhat redeemed by them being the ones the turn the waterfall on at the end.

    And there's something indescribably great about an action hero's climactic heroic action being to give blood. (I think the person two seats away from me cried at that).

    Now no other film has an excuse.

    That's been true ever since we got a feminist film about a Viking themed superhero proving more worthy than his less conventionally masculine brother. But a high-octane chase flick full of explosions taking that lesson on board is good too.

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    1. The Vuvalini are spectacular and I wish we would have gotten to spend more time with them. I also really appreciate how they were all presented as being super competent. I adore competent old women.

      As for Furiosa leaving the other women behind, I definitely agree that it was problematic. I mean, my screenwriter brain argues that they would have been a lot harder to help escape because they were in public view and therefore their absence would be missed a lot sooner, but I think that's a cop out. I don't know. It could have been done better, but it's still pretty rad.

      And oh my gosh you are completely right about how satisfying it is to see a heroic climax that's about GIVING and LIFE. I teared up a little.

      Thor is great. Completely agreed. I'm so glad I can start collecting these kinds of movies.

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  3. What makes me more happy about this movie, and usually nobody mention it's that finally, FINALLY, a movie with a man and a woman as protagonist, don't force them to be romantically together, for me is is the most amazing and revolutionary thing about this movie, and I can explain how good I feel about that when I watched.
    PS. I discovered your blog thanks to The 100, and is awesome

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    1. Yes yes yes. I find it really awesome how this movie seems to have teamed up with Pacific Rim and Captain America: The Winter Soldier to give us stories about men and women working together and being friends and saving the world and then NOT KISSING AT THE END. It's so satisfying to see stories that don't just fall into tired romance tropes.

      P.S. Yay!

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