Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie about chasing things.
It’s just that all of it is filtered through two hours of chasing a truck.
The film has been getting stellar reviews and with good reason. It is a master class in a certain type of visual storytelling. Despite it’s over-the-top, operatic visual style, it is verbally minimalist. There is not a huge amount of dialogue. Of that dialogue, very little is exposition. At the same time, a whole world and backstory is hinted at by simply having everyone assume it exists. Despite my love of words and explicitly digging into the hows and whys of things, it is an approach I adore when pulled off with conviction. Act like the world is real, and the audience will accept it as real, filling in the gaps as they go. It is the very essence of “show, don’t tell”.
The world of Mad Max: Fury Road — like the Mad Max movies before it — is baroque and bizarre and doesn’t make much logical sense (nor maintain continuity from one film to the other, which works if these are all “Tales From the Wasteland” told years later), but at the same time has a sort of archetypal consistency which makes sense in its self-contained world. Everyone and everything feels like it has a backstory and some reason as to why its there. From the screams of “Witness me!” for each WarBoy’s sacrifice, the implication of three brothers running their corner of the world despite their differences of opinion, the hints of the Wives’ sheltered lives and rise to freedom, and the unspecified details of Furiousa’s history, it all seems to make a strange sort of internal sense. And all of this is done without ever stopping to explain it. There’s no time to explain, there is a War Rig to chase, and things to blow up. All of these bits happen around what is an essentially simple story – someone stole something and fled in a truck. Other people want to stop them. That’s it. The why of it all has a basic explanation, but the many layers behind that why are implied rather than stated outright. They don’t matter, really. You don’t have to know every detail. you just need to know that it matters to these people, and that’ s enough.
This can be viewed as underwritten. (Indeed, my companion for the second time I saw the film was bored to tears by and endless chase and thought the dialogue and story trite.) But I actually argue it is just the opposite. It’s writing in negative space, letting all the visual elements of the world, the body language of the cast, and the basic internal logic of the story and character motivations, give you enough to buy into a surface story with a great deal of depth below the surface. By writing in archetypes, while letting those archetypes have human cores underneath, the story is conveyed efficiently, but with room for complexity as human frailty pushes through the symbol.[As a side note, that leads me to the fact this film is being touted in some circles as a “feminist” film. I think that does a disservice to the film. Besides the simple fact that feminism isn’t a single thing, but a number of different philosophies and political movements, it positions the film as an agenda-driven propaganda piece. The film only qualifies as feminist inadvertently. If you take the most anodyne definition of feminism, “women are real people”, then it qualifies. The internal logic of the film places a number of women in the narrative focus. Miller believes that the women in the film should have backstories and motivations and purpose, just like the men in the film should. That this incredibly low bar feels radical is a tragic indictment of the general state of films, but it is hard to say that makes it explicitly feminist. (Sasha James argues for a more explicitly feminist interpretation while agreeing with my basic reading of it being a byproduct of the story. I think she is overestimating the importance of Eve Ensler here, but at this point it is mostly nitpicking.) The movie effortlessly passes both The Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori test, but Joss Whedon probably serves as a warning of the dangers of pushing a role as “feminist writer” on someone who isn’t writing to an agenda, but simply doesn’t dismiss the women in their story.]
Having just recently re-watched the second Mad Max film, The Road Warrior, you can see this story telling style already there. There is a lot more hinted about the world than told. Everyone feels like they have an internal life and reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Even The Humungus has a sense of history, with the odd moment of his WWI era photographs in his gun case, and his hints of loved ones lost.
But while there is a magnificent elegance in this approach, it is clearly in service to leaving enough space to have virtually non-stop kinetic motion and visual spectacle telling the front story. There are almost no wasted shots in this film, all in the service of an extended chase. Despite a sort of constant ebb and flow of action, gradually escalating with each wave, everything on the screen matters. Prop detail tells little stories of character and world, with the return of a boot having an emotional beat and what looks like a piece of inconvenient detail from earlier in the film becoming important later. The ridiculous extravagance of the Doof Warrior’s speaker-laden, drum-beating, guitar-shredding death wagon ends up getting used for more than just show. Shots are framed where elements are happening in the foreground while additional story happens in the background, moving everything along with remarkable efficiency. It’s amazingly effective, and a reminder that different media have different strengths in how they can tell a story.
This tale could only be told this way in moving pictures, any other version wouldn’t be the same in a thousand subtle and important ways. It’s a tale of fire and blood and breathtaking stunts and action, anchored in a simple human story of people looking for a better life. It’s an amazing balancing act, and while exhausting if fisticuffs, bullets, and exploding cars aren’t your thing, it is the work of a master of his particular craft, and well worth seeing.