Please be aware, the following post contains significant spoilers. If you intend to see Mad Max: Fury Road and haven't yet, please take this into consideration. And for the love of god, go see the damn movie.
I went and saw Mad Max: Fury Road with my younger brother, and as we walked out of the theater, he said something that pulled me up short.
“You know what I really appreciated about it? The minimal storytelling.”
I was stunned. I mean, it’s possible that what he meant was “minimalist,” which I think would’ve been an interesting conversation. And to be honest, the actual arc of the film is simple. But I think what it comes down to is not understanding that the most recent Mad Max film is just a different kind of story than a lot of people are used to.
I’m not going to lie. I have eclectic tastes in movies. Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Ghandi, True Grit (Cohen Brothers version), and Hudson Hawk are among my favorites. But I sat rapt through Mad Max: Fury Road. There was just so much in there.
I tried to explain to my brother that this wasn’t minimal storytelling, it was good storytelling; storytelling in which you don’t notice that the bulk of it is happening. That’s how it’s supposed to work, I told him, without a lot of exposition. You’re supposed to experience the story. This was the effect that Mad Max had on me.
For those of you who didn’t enjoy the film as much as I did, it might help to understand that I was seven years old when Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome came out, and as such, am a child of Bartertown. So it’s possible that the franchise has an inescapable nostalgia for me. Still, I would encourage you to bear with me while I run through the things that delighted me the most about the movie, and the little complexities that, while possibly unnoticed by some, were an essential part of the movie’s impact.
First of all, Mad Max: Fury Road is a milieu story. Thunderdome is as well. It’s a story in which our point of view character enters into a strange new place, and allows the viewer to explore that place through the main character’s eyes. Max is accessible to us because he regards the world in the same way we do.
The world that Max is injected into is strange, harrowing, violent, and beautiful. He is taken captive and brought to the Citadel, a wasteland outpost led by the dictatorial Immortan Joe. Our first introduction to Joe is the view of his boil-covered back being dusted with powder and then sealed in a clear, hard casing of armor that is sculpted into muscles, allowing the flabby and ailing bad guy to appear strong and vital. His breathing apparatus is sculpted into a toothy grin. Between that and his wild hair, once prepared for the stage, Joe is an imposing figure. The Citadel and the surrounding Wasteland will tolerate no signs of weakness. As we ponder the question that the film knowingly asks, “who killed the world,” we are forced to admit that Joe is a victim of this as well.
What I love about Immortan Joe is that really, he is a principled villain. When he says that he is lifting people out of the dust and into society, viewed through the logic of the savage wasteland, it is a genuine claim. He withholds water for the purposes of farming. He enslaves women for the purposes of breeding healthy offspring and producing a nutritious food source; mother’s milk. Is it horrifying? Yes. But he is building civilization in the only way he knows how; through brutality and complete control.
Joe maintains control of the Citadel through the use of an army of fanatic War Boys. The War Boys are loyal to Joe, primarily due to his willingness and ability to supply them with blood. The War Boys appear to be suffering from an illness (some have theorized leukemia, as a result of radiation exposure in the wasteland) which shortens their lives dramatically. The War Boys have no hope for a future of peace. They have no hope for a future. They live only to die.
Part of the exquisite world building that is accomplished in Mad Max is how the complex culture of the War Boys is defined without us having to sit through cultural lectures on the subject. We are introduced to the concept of the half-life, the blood bags, the worship of their machines, through interaction and dialogue. And the culture that we’re introduced to is both rich and sad. The War Boys believe (correctly, probably) that the things that they do are necessary for the continued survival of the Citadel, the only society they’ve ever known. It is for this that the frenzied War Boys, young men with no real future, fling themselves into battle, heedless of the dangers to themselves. They worship the shine of metal and the chrome of their war machines to the point that this language has become a part of their patois. They worship the chromed ideal that no longer exists in their world, a world of faded paint, rusted metal, and dust.
Imperator Furiosa’s story is relatively flat; she is arguably the main character of the movie, but her change throughout the story is largely geographical. This is not uncommon in milieu stories. She reaches a point of desperation when she finds that her childhood home has been destroyed by the inexorable creep of the wasteland. And so we can see Furiosa’s journey as a hero’s journey; into the wilds, through many trials, into personal damnation and back again as the victor. It is also important to note that the Green Place, Furiosa’s place of birth, became a thing... a talisman of hope that she carried with her into adulthood, and that this hope was as illusory an ideal as the War Boys’ shine and chrome.
Max is her ally on this journey. That’s one of the remarkable things about Max Rockatansky, is that he’s not the main character of his own film. He’s the viewer’s window into this world, allowing us to connect with a humanity that might otherwise prove too bizarre. He is there as a mythic figure: to witness and recount the story to us, but who has little impact on the actual outcome. If you look at all four of the Mad Max films, you can watch them move further and further away from a recognizable society, into stranger and more tribal structures. Appearances and place and people names become stranger, mutations and illnesses become more intense.
The timeline of the Mad Max movies is nebulous. I mean, I’m sure there are some nerds out there who have calculated the timing of the films out, possibly to the day, because that’s the sort of thing that happens on the internet. But for someone just watching the movies, we see a rapid progression from villages that we might recognize as current day towns, still clinging to some hope of normalcy in the first Mad Max, through progressively more bizarre and tribal landscapes, before arriving at the truly savage Fury Road. I think it’s arguable that these are cultural shifts, especially if you take into account the scale of organization in Bartertown and the Citadel, that would take decades to generations to take place.
And Max himself never ages.
This is not a flaw in the films, but rather points to the fact that Max himself is a figure of myth at this point; an ageless legend of the post-apocalyptic outback. He appears, pursues self-preservation, and despite his selfish original intent, ends up helping people, saving lives, and planting the seeds for true civilization. In this, one can say he is not unlike other figures of myth, such as Prometheus, Raven, and Coyote. He is a part of the recreation myth for a world that has yet to come into existence.
I often wonder if this was the intent behind the creation of Max Rockatansky, or a happy accident of cultural influence. You can see a variety of cultural and mythological influence at work in the newest film, from place and group names to the War Boys’ concept of Valhalla.
So to those who say that Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t have enough plot, I would answer that it has as much plot as many of our classic milieu tales… including the Wizard of Oz and Gulliver’s Travels. The point of milieu tales is that, in the process of leading us through a strange and alien world, we’re given a glimpse of our own society from the outside. I think that Mad Max: Fury Road does this with an eloquence and economy uncommon in the action film genre.
And it that’s not enough for you to appreciate the film on, the cinematography of the vast desert combined with the practical effects and stunts offer a thrilling and beautiful spectacle the likes of which we haven’t seen for a long, long time. You can catch some behind the scenes footage of the stunt work here, and I recommend that you do; it's gorgeous.