George Miller really wanted Mad Max: Fury Road. The back-story, the thirty year gap between Fury Road and its predecessor Mad Mad: Beyond Thunderdome, and the troubled, stop-start production for Fury Road itself all conspire to tell us this much. The beauty of the resulting film is that this back-story is both instantly extraneous and essential to unlocking its mysteries. All the hurt, all the torment, all the passion to release that which had been denied to Miller; all are instantly identifiable on the screen, but the film speaks for itself. Right before it blows your head off, but that is the Miller way. After releasing two extraordinary vehicles for tactile, sand-encrusted action under the Mad Max name, he went Hollywood and lost his edge with the third feature, the one whose biggest addition was Tina Turner. He spent the ensuing thirty years intermittently pursuing his craft in often stellar family films to recuperate, but his heart was elsewhere.
Specifically, his dream of returning to his native Australia and essaying it as devious, deconstructed, downright naughty carnival of death and mayhem was continually delayed and bottled-up over the decades. Expectations were high; could Fury Road truly bruise with panache like the top-flight action pic it hoped to be? Could it really succeed in today’s slumming blockbuster market defined by symmetry and similitude? Could his baroque, brash vision hold true under the weight of reshoots and reschedulings? For Fury Road, Miller’s bottle cracked and everything denied him for decades throttles the screen into submission. Miller’s lust, his need, his pulsing desire to release Mad Max: Fury Road is apparent from frame one; this hulking, transgressive leviathan of an exploitation fever dream could not have been released by anyone who didn’t feel it in every bone of their body. This is the sight of a director pursuing his craft like his life depended on it, and having the time of his life while at it. This desert-burnt deification of all things volatile, rambunctious, chrome, and clinically crazed defiles and degrades the rules and regulations of cinematic blockbusters and treats timidity like an inoperable, hostile principle, even a leper that is not to be touched.
At some level, Fury Road works on an unconscious level, brandishing enough pure style to bludgeon critical faculties into submission and render them corrupted. It operates on an almost operatic register, grabbing you bodily and throwing you headfirst into its wills and desires like no film released in years. But it is when you recover from the trauma and the drunken road-rage and ponder what you’ve just had happen to you that the film’s true colors are revealed. It is when you have to go back into the real world that you realize what cruel genius has been done to you. It is here when you understand that Fury Road is not only an effectively pulverizing thrill ride, but a beguiling, transformative work of unabashed cinema. Brushing away formalities, Fury Road is the best action film of the past quarter century, but it is much more. It is an overflowing personal expression of cinema’s ability to conspire against reality, to challenge, and to transfix. Resigning any and all temporary duties to bear any indexical relationship to reality, Fury Road is a statement to the wide warp of cinematic conjuration, and to the power of cinema.
To wit, Miller’s film is gorgeous, but that much is apparent from a frame or two. What is not captured in those bite-sized moments of carnivalesque moshing is how perfectly, intricately balanced Miller’s teetering vision is when in motion. His texture is less muscular Frank Franzetta painting than the angry, combative, anarchic scrawl of a Jackson Pollock piece, funnels of red colliding with dusty, sickly yellows and brazen, hopeless blues cascading the night along. Furnishing an ungodly communion between the dry sizzle of minimalism and the manna of maximal style, the film deals in dueling stylistic consciousnesses and ultimately feels like cinematic shock treatment.
But Miller doesn’t give in to the sideshow aesthetics and the primed chaos; there is always purpose, always a sense of journey and destination and the fluxing, essential balance between the two. His film has a meticulously mechanical sensibility, but it is never swallowed by a rote adherence to simplicity or formula. Like the cars Miller gallantly fetishizes throughout this film, his work is both utilitarian and playful, laser-focused but with a touch of perverse anti-class and personality. It hurtles forward like clockwork, with every minimalist line reading and shot absolutely essential to the thousand-gear piston that knocks your skull out of place. But the clockwork is also emancipatory in its push away from the normalcy of functional screenwriting, where a film must move from A to B to C in ordained fashion without question. It is a work of contrasts; harshly linear but expressively exploratory, chaotic but cohesive, cosmic and alien but earthen and rough-hewn, all perilously pitched at the intersection of going off the rails and tightly wound. Miller gets to have it both ways.
Right from the beginning, Miller is putting his heart out there on the screen with some of the most forward-thinking action direction and visual storytelling of the young century. The mini-movie holding the late title card back in a cage, where all the set-up is gracefully dumped to unfold in a few minutes of bluster and rattling dementia, is mesmerizing. Even before we see an image, the sound design is playing tricks in our head, moving from the left to the right of the screen and contrasting corners to play with aural space. This is before we have Miller’s visual undertaking happen to us mind you.
And happen it does, seeing Miller jitter and twitch the frame rate around and hurtle the action forward in the fewest possible frames to set up the pieces. It is a film of storyboards more than anything, but the way they mold together is counter-intuitive and deceptive. He makes orange and teal look good – yes, orange and teal, the most mocked color scheme in the history of cinema – by taking it as a challenge, reducing his palette to only those two colors for most of the film and then experimenting with how to vary them in startling ways. Which says nothing of the trips to iconographic reds. Or the murky blues that read like skeletal whites battling dearly departed blacks. Miller uses the film as his filmic toy box, experimenting (along with cinematographer John Seale) with grain, clarity, density, on-screen space, off-screen space, audio positioning, sound quality, editing, and frame rate.
Especially satisfying are the little sideways dalliances with comic anarchy, instances which don’t so much transform the skeleton of Miller’s vision as play around within the limits of action cinema. It is apparent that Miller’s kicked-up version of the Western is matched in its limitless thrust only by its playfully prismatic attempts to devour all-comers, from the more mythic likes of Ford (and yes, Kurosawa’s own Japanese Westerns too), to the tactile sweating qualities of Leone, to the unexpected handbrake turns into the momentary but permanently-ingrained Looney Tunes Wild West where the likes of Tex Avery dried out and dissected American modernity on a slab of pure sand.
Of all influences though, the way Miller melds introspective, expressive color-coding and visual storytelling with an unabashed investment in camp and a gusto for whimsy and wistful world building, Mad Max; Fury Road finds the closest allies in the playful silent adventure-horror films of the 1920s. His occasional addresses to out-right Expressionism catch a glimpse of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, a fellow adventurer into the intersection of dreams and nightmares, and the mythic visage of Lawrence of Arabia makes more than one fair entrance. Fury Road seems like a film from another world where sound cinema never happened, and where filmmaking never lost its perversity or its cackling, carnivorous edge.
Yet for all the splendorous and often comic chaos, Miller is also a knowingly minimalist aesthetician; he strips his film to the bare, weary essentials, focusing on the forward momentum and the quiet pauses that arrive like soul-stirring bullets amidst the carnage. He down-tunes his film, exhibiting an intuitive preference for the almighty canvas and the image at the expense of the helpless heaping servings of dialogue that most summer films utilize to sand over their rough spots. Miller is a seasoned craftsman; he has confidence in his storyboards, and like Kurosawa with his multitudinous late-period masterpiece Ran, emphasizes the animated nature of his otherwordly slice of forlorn earth.
Specifically, Miller understands that the apocalypse saps many privileges from the human species, but the freedom to stop and speak, to pontificate, is chief among them. He intuits that these characters live and die by their forward push to the next objective, be it a water-basin or an oasis or a scrapyard part for their multipurpose instruments of travel and destruction. A word for them is a moment to cherish, and Miller doesn’t induce a case of the expositions every five minutes to keep us up to date. He treats his viewers like adults, letting the imagery do the talking, and he exhibits a casual mastery of the knowledge that less is more. The less these characters talk, the more we glean from their eye twitches and their sighs, and the more we listen when they have something to say.
The end result plays as both artwork and craft-work, moving effortlessly within sky-high, vertiginous spaces but never losing its low-slung, mortar-and-concrete groundwork. It is loaded with pulpy mania and zealous bombast, as comfortable playing the trapeze artist as the nuts and bolts architect. Beyond all of the visuals and the mosh-pit meets playground chutzpah of the film, it is a note perfect collection of shots and edits all designed to tell Miller’s tale.
For instance, even if you strip away the zip and the pop, you still have the savagely perfect editing and the incomparable sound design to haunt your dreams. You have the remarkably potent, confrontational storytelling that trusts its audiences to fit together the pieces of the characters and the world more than any genre film in recent years. It is blistering and refreshing just how much Miller leaves out, especially when you consider how much time he had to make the movie; this is a remarkably focused motion picture that treats its audience like adults who do not have to be told how this world works when the film can lay down hints through little details in the side of the frame or in the background.
Beyond the craft, you have the characters. With the film structured as a chase, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) pursing Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Joe’s five wives, who capture Max (Tom Hardy) along the way, Miller lets the action tell all about the world’s inhabitants. Tell it does. You have the insurmountably challenging way that the film defines Max completely by saying so little about him, and the way the film abuses him like a brutal dog who has to learn the barbaric ways of male society up close and personal. You have the way the film does everything in its worldly abilities to subvert expectations about the age-old “women in distress, man helps” genre of cinema, and you have the way it does so without even vocalizing this subversion until it slithers up and forces itself upon you. Even if you take away the fact that it may be the most beautiful popcorn film ever released, you have all of this combative, spastic verve and metrical implication waiting for you. I for one am jealous of the previous version of me that hadn’t yet seen it, that was waiting in the theater hoping for the best and getting something even better, the version of me that gets to experience Miller’s three decades of bottled-up and let loose charisma and ingenuity on the screen for the first time.
Fury Road isn’t “for” everyone; the middlebrows will have little use for its non-stop barrage of pure cinema. They will clamor for “story”, making the mistake of assuming that more events equates to a more nuanced story. They will clamor for “characters”, making the mistake of assuming that characters must stop to pontificate and emote in order to feel and breathe life onto the screen. Miller wants it this way. He’s made a movie to scare the middlebrows, and for the rest of us to cherish for its deranged, off-kilter majesty. Some will say it lacks “depth”, but it inserts its own form of depth onto the screen that defines action more like performance art than a conventional drama. Depth there is, and in gallons and bushels, but it isn’t a depth that sits atop the film or addresses itself openly. It is depth that you have to work for, depth that exists in unison with the action and the landscape and depth which emerges from the cracks in the sun-scorched earth.
Fury Road is less a story than a distillation of a mood and a mental space, like, say, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and a lengthy experiment to maintain and further that mood over the duration of a film. If it pays off commercially, Miller will hopefully get his dream of pursuing the series in other directions over time (hopefully without the thirty year layover this time, lest Miller make the next one when he is 100). Whatever happens, we’ll always have the once and future reign of the mad to throttle us into bliss when the blockbusters of the future are giving us nightmares. Whatever Miller ends up doing next, we’ll always have Fury Road.