Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always
With stunning performances from two completely genuine young leads, this is a movie people will talk about all year.
This feature is a part of a series on the best films of the 2010s, resulting from our ranked top 25, which you can read here. This is #4.
“Mad Max: Fury Road,” George Miller’s post-apocalyptic extravaganza, is a visceral thrill full of heart-pounding action sequences and brutally balletic violence. It’s one long chase that’s both epic in scope and rich in detail. It fits firmly within Miller’s established “Mad Max” movie universe, yet bursts with a powerful, original vision all its own. It is a gorgeous gut-punch. When it opened in May 2015, I wrote in a four-star review on my website, “Believe all the hype: This movie will melt your face off.”
Revisiting the film now, I found it working its magic on a different area of the body: the heart. Because while it was already a moving assertion of feminine strength, it feels like an even more vital declaration of independence in the months and years following the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. This is a film about a group of women who dare to break free of the greedy and grotesque man who’d abused and exploited them for far too long. They decide they will no longer breed warlords for the slovenly and sadistic tyrant Immortan Joe (a fearsome Hugh Keays-Byrne), who views them merely as things. The worshipful, ambitious young men who’ve surrounded him and done his bidding are incapable of stopping them. And in a highly symbolic screw-you gesture, one of the women uses a pair of bolt cutters to snip off the horrific chastity belt that’s ensnared her.
Comparisons to one-time Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein are certainly easy and apt. But the core rebellion at the center of “Mad Max: Fury Road” will resonate with any woman who’s been underestimated, marginalized, harassed or assaulted. A male character gives the film its title, but it’s the women who drive this tale, both literally and figuratively. Former police officer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, his handsome face obscured yet again) may set the ominous tone with his gravelly opening voiceover, in which he rumbles about being “the one who runs from both the living and the dead” (before stomping on a two-headed lizard and slipping it into his mouth for a snack). But very soon, he becomes a passenger in his own story, as the magnificent Imperator Furiosa takes the wheel for the breathless chase that gives the film its narrative spine.
It’s no hyperbole to say that Charlize Theron has provided us with a supreme female warrior for the ages—an icon in the realm of Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” franchise and Linda Hamilton in the “Terminator” films. With her shaved head, greased face, steampunk-inspired mechanical arm and the endless arsenal she carries within the war rig she commands, she’s as intimidating as she is resourceful. Furiosa’s ferocity has always been undeniable; what impresses on a repeat viewing is her tenderness. Everything she does – from taking the initial, major risk to veer off-course during her mission with Joe’s wives in tow to fixing her behemoth of a vehicle as it barrels across the desert under near-constant attack – comes from a place of generosity. Every decision she makes is in pursuit of a sanctuary she seeks purely through faith. She leaves nothing to chance, yet she dares to open her heart to others who need her.
Theron reveals glimmers of her character’s kindness throughout the course of the journey. But once Furiosa finally leads her crew back to her homeland and encounters a tribe of older women who are just as strong and resilient as she is, the hugs and tears provide a palpable moment of catharsis. When one of them asks her how long she’s been gone, Furiosa responds without hesitation: “Seven thousand days, plus the months I don’t remember,” and you feel the pressure of the weight she’s been carrying inside her. (Miller co-wrote the script, with its gripping specificity of language, with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris.) Theron is so subtle here with just the slightest gesture—the way Furiosa hesitantly mirrors the elders’ ritual of reaching for the sky for an imaginary star and pulling it back down to the heart, like going back to church for the first time in a long time and still remembering the words to prayers you learned in childhood. And when she discovers that the mythical “green place” she’d dreamed of has long since devolved into an uninhabitable muck, the pure emotion that flows from her carries great poignancy. As she drops to her knees on a sand dune and lets out a cry from deep within her, it’s a release of the years of pain and frustration she’s suffered. It’s also a visually stunning shot, as so many of them are from the great cinematographer John Seale.
And it’s a turning point in the story, in both a physical and narrative sense. Returning to storm the Citadel, vanquish their oppressor and hopefully create a flourishing, new society, Furiosa, Max and their crew follow the same path they took, but with a very different energy. The edgy desperation that marked their initial journey has been replaced by the compelling pull of determination and even redemption. We’re exhausted and amped-up at once.
All the freaks that followed them are still in pursuit: the shiny and sycophantic War Boys, the pole cats that swing from side to side, dropping down to doom their targets like a sadistic Cirque du Soleil. The sedans atop tanks and classic cars fused to monster trucks still roar menacingly all around them. And the staccato, string-heavy Junkie Xl score once again provides a propulsive backdrop to this high-stakes race. And yet, there is an underlying sense that it’s going to be OK—that these brave young women and the needy throngs thirsty for water are in the best possible hands: those of a woman who’s seen some things and made some mistakes and lived a complicated life of achievements and regrets. We knew that long before Furiosa shares the perfect, understated nod of recognition with Max as he pushes his way through the crowd to forge his own path. The future is female.
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