Thursday, June 4, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Mad Max: Fury Road

Aeon Flux, Charlize Theron's last big attempt at a tentpole action flick before Mad Max, tanked back in 2005, simply because it didn't have a guy with a flamethrower guitar.
Every Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm intentionally pulling out the ticket that says "Mad Max: Fury Road" because I'm just in awe of both the film's visuals and the intriguing writing for its female characters, and I want to discuss how satisfying an action film the fourth Mad Max installment is--as well as discuss the one aspect that's disappointing. Mild spoilers ahead.

The boldest thing about director Destin Cretton's 2013 indie drama Short Term 12 is its lack of on-the-nose exposition and speechifying, which makes it stand apart in a genre where dramas about counselors or social workers who want to protect child abuse victims are frequently on-the-nose about their storytelling and over-explanatory or preachy. "None of the backstories of the film's four main characters... are unveiled in clumsily written infodumps or pointless flashbacks," I said a couple of months ago. "They're unveiled gradually, piece by piece, and at believable moments."

The same goes for Mad Max: Fury Road, Australian director George Miller's incredible and much-talked-about return to the post-apocalyptic action franchise that made his career 36 years ago. Aside from an introductory voiceover that's reminiscent of the recap about the fall of civilization at the start of Miller's earlier action masterpiece The Road Warrior, Aussie ex-cop Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, ably taking over Mel Gibson's titular role) has even less dialogue in Fury Road than he did in The Road Warrior. He makes Detective Frank Bullitt look like a flibbertigibbet doing an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.

It's remarkable how outside of the introductory voiceover, Fury Road conveys Max's PTSD and his guilt over the lives he was unable to save strictly in visual terms, namely two-second flashbacks to a dead little girl who keeps taunting him (either she's a daughter he raised many years after bikers killed both his toddler son and his wife in the first Mad Max film or a kid he failed to save from a recent massacre). During one of those flashbacks, another apparition appears in Max's mind, and he's the only Aboriginal in the whole goddamn movie. The Nerds of Color blog points out that out of Fury Road's cast, "actress Courtney Eaton is part Maori and Chinese, Zoe Kravitz is African American and Megan Gale is half-Maori. The text of the film does not reveal these to be necessarily conscious choices, meaning these actresses did not need to be persons of color, but here they are." But aside from those three cast members, the movie's ensemble, just like the casts in so many other recent movies about the future, is as white as a Lawrence Welk Show taping.

Max ignores Chris Rock's advice about staying off the pole.

The Caucasity is a small speed bump in a car chase movie that's a mother lode of great examples of show-don't-tell storytelling, from Max's minimal dialogue to any scene involving war-rig driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron), both the film's real hero--even more so than her adversary-turned-ally Max--and its breakout character (aside from, of course, the bad motherfucker with the flamethrower guitar, a.k.a. the Doof Warrior). Not until Fury Road's third act does the audience realize why Furiosa chose to turn against her despotic, water-hoarding boss Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and help five of the warlord's female sex slaves--one of whom is pregnant with Joe's child--escape to safety.

Furiosa's doing it out of remorse for being previously complicit in the same exact sex-slavery system that kidnapped her as a child. She was abducted from her home in the region known as the Green Place, along with her mother, and was raised in the Citadel, the mountaintop society ruled by Joe, and she wants to return to her matriarchal tribe in the Green Place and provide Joe's breeders with sanctuary there. But the film never specifies if Furiosa was actually one of Joe's sex slaves before becoming one of his imperators, a.k.a. lieutenants (a character detail that's not stated in the movie is Furiosa's infertility, which explains why she's a rig driver and imperator instead of one of Joe's breeders), and it doesn't have to. Like Chris Klimek said in an NPR piece about Fury Road, "We're not subjected to a cinemas-interruptus monologue where she tells us why [she's helping the women escape]. We get why. Theron's eyes show us why."

Lenny Kravitz's daughter and Elvis' granddaughter are two of the escapees. Replace the other two girls with Keith Richards' granddaughter and Bob Dylan's granddaughter, and they all could form the world's most interesting new rock band.

The beauty of Theron's lean and mean performance--by the way, when Theron said "guzzoline" instead of "gasoline," that moment, even more so than either the return of Max's old Interceptor or the presence of Junkie XL's suitably chaotic-sounding score, really made me feel like I was home again in the dystopic desert world I grew to enjoy during The Road Warrior--is similar to the beauty of Brie Larson's performance in Short Term 12, where many of the things Larson's equally laconic character doesn't say and is unable to share with other people are more powerful than the things she does say. If Short Term 12 is a triumph of economical storytelling, Fury Road is a fucking 62-foot buzzer-beater of economical storytelling.

"Miller didn't have much money [for 1979's Mad Max], but he made his action look astounding by focusing on clarity," noted Kevin Lincoln in the Dissolve essay "What modern action films could learn from the original Mad Max." In Fury Road, which was filmed on location in Namibia, Miller has much more money, but his action sequences continue to focus on clarity--instead of opting for something like ultra-fast cuts that end up making everything incomprehensible--and they emphasize old-school stuntwork and old-school practical FX in the age of 007 windsurfing a fake-looking CGI tidal wave and Indiana Jones being chased through an equally fake-looking CGI jungle. Fury Road is 80% practical FX and 20% CGI, and most of that CGI was used not for explosions--or animating Max's leaps and dives in the same way that animation was used to create Spider-Man's movements in live-action Spidey movies--but for removing stunt rigs and creating Furiosa's mechanical left arm.

There's a purity to Fury Road's action sequences that's as appealing and intriguing as the purity in both the film's dialogue (part of me wishes Miller made Fury Road into a silent movie like Buster Keaton's The General, which he's cited as an influence on his "western on wheels" and has already been mashed up with one of Junkie XL's Fury Road score cues by some genius over on Vimeo) and the characters' motivations. So it bugs me when I stumble into a criticism about the purity of those motivations, like Leonard Maltin's complaints that "I didn't care about any of the characters" and "They are so sketchily drawn." Are you basically saying, Mr. Maltin, that Fury Road could have used more exposition to get you inside the characters' heads? Because Fury Road really doesn't need more. Just like Short Term 12, it's a film about survivors of abuse and PTSD sufferers learning to overcome their difficulties with both communication and trusting others--or turning those difficulties into their strengths--to fight their adversaries together and regain their agency. There's no time for speechifying or letting everyone know at length how they feel. They've got a Green Place they need to drive to.

'Is it weird that I think the most romantic movie moment of the year is Furiosa resting the rifle on Max's shoulder to aim?'--Kyle Buchanan from Vulture
(Photo source: Feminist Mad Max)

None of Junkie XL's score cues from Mad Max: Fury Road are currently in rotation on AFOS, but they ought to be.

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