Everyone has an opinion on Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s probably more written about its feminist message than there was about Fincher’s Gone Girl when that came out last year. And there was a LOT about Gone Girl. I know, I read most of it before deciding there wasn’t a case to be made either way because it just wasn’t actually a very good film. I digress. Mad Max is worth writing about, even though I’ll be the millionth person to do so, because it is actually a very good film. Is it feminist? Now that’s where it gets interesting.
On a quick side note, please please please go and see this film before reading on. I feel like I spoiled it for myself by extensively reading about it before I popped down to my local Odeon to see it for myself. I cannot express enough – go and see it and then come back and read on!
I’ve never seen the Mad Max trilogy. My entire worldview of the franchise rested on the fact that it’s my Dad’s favourite series of films ever and that he loves it because it’s about fast cars and features an insane Mel Gibson. I also didn’t bother seeing Mad Max, The Road Warrior or Thunderdome before seeing Fury Road, as a helpful IGN video seemed to sum up everything I would need to know. Max is mad because a) his wife and daughter were killed by savage hooligans in a post-apocalyptic style Australian wild west, where law and order have disappeared out of the window and b) everyone is mad, it’s just the way things are now. I feel like watching at least the first Mad Max (1979) may have helped to understand why Max behaves the way he does, and to establish that he is actually not a hero figure in the franchise.
This is an important fact. Title character Max (Tom Hardy) is not a superhero, or even a hero at all. He’s capable, but he’s nothing special. He’s just mad. Within the heart-racing first three minutes, Max is captured and taken to the Citadel to be used as a ‘Universal Donor’ for some freakishly white slave/war boys. In any other film, this set-up may have taken twenty minutes, maybe even half an hour. But no, Miller rushes us through the boring stuff, leaving any extra details to our imaginations only. It’s an incredibly refreshing way of storytelling and the film continues at this breakneck speed throughout. We are quickly introduced to Immorten Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the vile leader of the Colony and then introduced to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the person who Joe has trusted to drive their oil tanker across the desert to Gas Town.
There’s only one small catalyst that sets the narrative in motion (and I literally mean motion). Furiosa has rescued Immorten Joe’s ‘Wives’ from their breeding chamber and he’s not at all happy about it. The narrative sees Furiosa and Max team up in order to escape the gun brandishing, pole-catting, petrolheads of Bullet Town, Gas Town and the Citadel who are hot on their heels. Essentially a two hour car chase, our heroes are escaping in an enormous oil tanker with their pursuants in a mix-mash of death cars; kitted out with turbo engines, tyre spikes and an insane rockstar with a flame-thrower guitar. Did I mention this film is absolutely insane? Fury Road hurtles along at breakneck speed, not stopping for anyone – especially not the audience. It’s the first car chase film, for me at least, that’s truly encompassed the raw engine power, the gasoline and the momentum of the chase. As Mark Kermode says, you can actually smell the petrol coming out of the cinema screen. It’s so visual, so in-your-face that saying ‘I felt like I was living it’ just feels like a complete understatement. The mania, the anger and the pace is quite extraordinary and I feel totally comfortable saying that I’ve never seen a film that does quite what Fury Road is doing. Considering it’s basically a super extended car chase with few pit-stops, it’s engaging from beginning to end.
As audiences we have got lazy due to the continous releasing of films which fail to challenge us. Hollywood churns out films which explain everything to us – slowly and deliberately. We get back stories for every character; motivations and desires. Details that, frankly, slow us down. Details that we definitely do not always need. Miller – the genius that he is – does away with all of that. You know what you need to know, we are told only what is necessary for the next part of the narrative. It’s really beautiful, honestly.
The feminism of Fury Road has been debated over by reviewers, MRA’s, feminists and the general public, and to me the it doesn’t seem as clear cut as a lot of people seem to believe it is. Fury Road certainly holds feminist ideologies and has moments which you could definitely call feminist, especially in the context of the action film – which has and continues to be a male dominated space in cinema. There is a conflict of interests to do with the way in which Fury Road has been shot and what Fury Road says about women and the patriarchy. Furiosa is a woman who harbors anger and strength, traits which are inherently masculine within the action film genre – unless the female character is has been raised by men. Furiosa, however, has been raised in a matriarchy and the anger and rage she feels truly is beyond the scope of masculine or feminine. When our heroes reach the Green Place, the group of bikers who meet them are revealed to be women – most of them at senior age. It’s a clever and political revelation, subverting our expectations about survivors within the Fury Road universe.
On the other hand, whilst The Wives prove themselves to be capable of more than just screaming and looking pretty (another role which many female characters are instantly relegated to), we have to remember that Miller and co. did actually cast supermodels for the roles. The camera pans across their bodies in a way that we are used to seeing, and for all that it doesn’t objectify Furiosa, it most certainly does sexualise them.
I don’t think it’s a case of Fury Road being feminist, more that it has a clear view on patriarchal societies and why they need dismantling. One key aspect of the ‘feminism’ in Fury Road is the acknowledgement that patriarchal societies benefit neither men or women (think slaves and war-boys). It remains to be seen whether a matriarchy fares any better; I suspect not as Miller constantly reinforces the point that we will only survive a dystopian future if we pull together. Furiosa and Max’s alliance proves this.
It seems that a lot of MRA’s were getting worked up simply because a woman appeared in the film doing more than just sitting around waiting to be saved. It’s a leap to say that showing a female character actually doing something automatically means a film is feminist, or that Fury Road is feminist because MRA’s hate it. Fury Road is definitely a step in the right direction, and almost every other action film can stand to learn something from it. Also, the day we let an MRA decide if something is feminist or not is probably the day we should give up hope for the cause*.
Fury Road is, visually and technically, a masterpiece. I can’t help but marvel at the purposeful lack of CGI, at Miller’s remarkable grip on the momentum and of course the incredible soundtrack. There are moments of humour, and weaker moments of reflection. Although the story is an arc of hope and redemption, the film feels more comfortable when it is loud, brash and full of rage. There are, of course, complete inconsistencies within the plot and the more you think about the narrative, the less the whole thing makes any sense. But that’s the beauty of Fury Road. It’s so unbelievable, so out of this world and so unexplained that actually, it doesn’t matter that certain things don’t add up. It allows for a full suspension of disbelief, one which you don’t come down from until the credits roll. I would also add that casting Charlize Theron may have been a mistake, just because she stands so far above and beyond the rest of the cast. Tom Hardy was okay but fairly unemotive and not particularly interesting. It’s his journey but the hope and redemption lie with Furiosa. Also, was I the only person who struggled to understand him? It felt like I was watching The Dark Knight Rises again…maybe it’s a thing about masks.
When I left the cinema after seeing Fury Road, I honestly felt like my eyeballs had been burnt out of my head. In a good way. It took me a few days of going back over the film to really process what I’d seen. Immersive. Progressive. Totally mad and absolutely inspiring. Hollywood, take note.
(* I feel like I could write another essay on the gender politics of ‘Fury Road’, but this isn’t the place to do it… watch this space though)