(Updated for 2016 at the bottom!)
You don’t often hear the term ‘word-of-mouth success story’ when it comes to triple-A Hollywood blockbusters, because films of that budget and caliber are typically promoted to high heaven anyway – but the buzz around Fury Road upon its release was something else entirely. I would see people who were normally cynical about anything in this movie’s ballpark – remakes, blockbusters, post-apocalyptic films – stopping in their tracks and praising this film’s greatness. And by the time me and a couple friends finally did make our way into the theater several weeks after release, the showing was still packed.
That’s all just to give you some context for my next statement: I was overjoyed to find that this movie lived up to the staggering word-of-mouth and then some. And watching it on blu-ray, which hit shelves this week, I was happy to find that I enjoyed it even more than in the theater.
Mad Max: Fury Road is an adrenaline rush with incredible practical effects, lush visuals and a stirring orchestral score. But that’s not exactly why it’s so great from a writer’s perspective. Rather, let’s talk about pacing.
There are certain tropes of the modern action film that Fury Road happily defies, and is better for it. If you’re a writer, or a part of the writing scene in any way, you’ll often hear the mantra, ‘show, don’t tell’ – essentially, if something can be revealed or explained visually, do that instead of just narrating it. It makes for a more exciting, dynamic story, and it’s considered one of the unbreakable golden rules of writing.
Fury Road is the new gold standard in how to show-not-tell. This movie walks the walk with its narrative, trusting the viewer to piece things together rather than bog itself down. Max failed to protect his family long ago and is haunted by it; his increasingly-vivid hallucinations in the first act tell us pretty much everything we need to know. It’s the action-movie standard to have a ‘soft beat’ where Max would emote to Furiosa about how he failed to save the ones he cared about, but really, is that necessary at all when the hallucinations already told that story? This film opines that it’s not. Or take the ‘green place’ that Furiosa and the other women are trying to get to: we can infer from what’s given to us that it’s a rumoured place that’s held some trace of the old world, where there’s more than just a desert wasteland. The idea is planted in our minds without us being slapped over the head with it.
Compare this to a triple-A action blockbuster that I would consider bloated for the wrong reasons, like Transformers: Age Of Extinction, where we take a break from the robot fighting to discuss statutory rape laws (?!) and then we all feel like taking a nice cold shower. Fury Road is one of the most taut action movies I’ve ever seen, and for all the right reasons.
We can infer that this takes place far enough after the collapse of society that a new cult-like society has risen in the ruins, a society based around vehicles and gasoline (I’m sorry, ‘guzzoline’), blood and water, with new recruits being driven just crazy enough to believe they’ll ride to Valhalla by committing acts of vehicular manslaughter in service to their leader, the monstrous tyrant Immortan Joe. (I do have to admit – Joe? Nice name for a larger-than-life cinema villain – what’s next, Darth Jerry?)
Interestingly enough, Max (played with teeth-grinding conviction by Tom Hardy) seems largely incidental to his own eponymous film: the plot revolves around Charlize Theron’s hard-nosed Furiosa, an Imperator of Immortan Joe who has turned rogue and absconded with the Immortan’s harem of slave-wives, his ‘breeders’, with intent to smuggle them across the wasteland and to the ‘green place’. This is Furiosa’s mission, it’s her character arc, and really, this is her story. Meanwhile, Max spends part of the first act as a living hood-ornament, and spends the bulk of the film as Furiosa’s partner-in-crime. It lends a decidedly classically feminist air to this testosterone-fueled car-mageddon spectacle. Theron displays enough subtleties in her assured acting to carry the plot forward, and Hardy’s Max is excellent as the beleaguered captive-come-hero who’s just barely keeping his head above water (or sand, as the case may be).
Additionally, the film is co-starred by one of the cultists named Nux, who starts just as much of a lunatic as the rest of them, but becomes surprisingly likable as the film continues, at least within the framework of this particular narrative.
Individual scenes are gripping and superbly-directed as well: when Furiosa diverts into the storm, the inspired, chaotic visuals make you almost feel as though you’re looking out onto some turbulent alien world, while the aforementioned soundtrack perfectly sets the tone.
This is the kind of film where individual images have a way of sticking with you, such as the various deformities that have been taken as commonplace in this new world, or the incredibly creepy stilt-people in that one shot.
Mad Max: Fury Road really feels like the concept of the ‘action movie’ has been distilled and refined, the chaff culled from the wheat until all the non-essentials have been sloughed away. And I want to emphasize here that taking time to world-build, and taking time for quiet emotional scenes that enrich our understanding of the world and characters, is not a bad thing at all, depending on what kind of story you’re trying to make.
But it just so happens that Mad Max: Fury Road is attempting to be the cinematic answer to a speed metal album, and on that score, Fury Road is the absolute gold standard for the style.
And because I really can’t come up with any higher praise than that, we’ve got to give Fury Road four out of four fire-spewing guitar rigs.
2016 update: congratulations to Fury Road costume designer Jenny Beavan on a well-deserved Oscar win. Witness her! As you’ve probably heard, she was to the Oscar recipients as Fury Road was to the Best Picture nominees: going her own way instead of cowtowing to trends. And to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu who sat with crossed arms and a scowl as she walked to the stage, grow up.