“Hey, what’s your name? What do I call you?” Furiosa (Charlize Theron) stares hard at the man (Tom Hardy) in the passenger seat of her War Rig. As imposing as she is, he won’t tell her. “Does it matter?” he asks.
Of course it does. You know his name is Max, as he’s proclaimed at the start of the movie that is, after all, titled for him. Some 35 years after George Miller‘s first Mad Max, something like a reboot emerges from the Wasteland, conjuring another future at once mythic and ancient, mesmerizing and near. Here again, Max is a self-described warrior living in a “world is fire and blood.” He’s a survivor, he goes on, “hunted by scavengers and haunted by those I could not protect,” figures who appear in nightmarish flashes in his head, including a little white girl and an Aboriginal elder, the sorts of instantly identifiable vulnerables that Max, a hero in spite of himself, repeatedly and reluctantly tries to look after.
Max’s feeling of guilt is as legendary as his car chases. This feeling is grounded in his past, specifically, as he reminds you in a confessional voiceover at the start of Mad Max: Fury Road, the fact that he was once a cop. When, young and cocky, he took up against a brutal road gang in the 1979 movie, they murdered is wife and child, an act of vengeance that made him mad, in all senses. His transition from cop to road warrior was marked when, in the 1981 movie, he traded in his police cruiser for “the last of the V8 Interceptors”, a brilliantly jerry-rigged fiction of a Ford Falcon.
That car was famously destroyed in order that he might drive a tanker full of sand and save a tribe whose members included the Feral Kid (Emil Minty). Mad Max: Fury Road briefly revives a version of that car, and proceeds to blow it up within a couple of minutes in order to make Max to drive another big rig, Furiosa’s. He shares the responsibility this time, with her and with the doomed pale-powdered War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). That Max is no longer the only or best driver underlines that he’s now less special than representative.
Max is an outsider by definition, loathe even to try to reconnect, to feel intimacy. Yet as soon as he sees Furious, each traveling in a separate vehicle at high speed in the desert, the superb editing (a signature of the franchise) signals their mutual understanding. At this moment, she’s driving her War Rig and he’s chained to Nux’s truck as he serves as his Blood Bag, Nux being so damaged that he needs a transfusion to travel with him. Though his service here as hood ornament recalls the beigey prisoners in Road Warrior, he bears an extra sign of Joe’s reign, muzzled with a fantastically forked metal face mask.
The mask leaves Max looking frightful, and underscores his multiple status here. He’s Max but he’s not Mel Gibson, he’s mad but he’s not Furiosa, he’s cruel (quite willing to shoot girls and boys to survive) but he’s wounded, persuaded to help. He also remains the movie’s only ex-cop. That haunts him, and you, that he participated in a brutal system that produced brutality, a system that produced the family of warlords now hoarding resources and promulgating mantras (“I die, I live again”). Again, the warlords rule tiny desert pockets named for their resources, like Gastown and the Bullet Farms. But gasoline is no longer the primary desired object. Instead, that’s water, secured in the Citadel, named for its structure and function.
Known throughout the Wasteland, the Citadel is — or may be — singular, surrounded by endless space and inexpressible pain. “Out here,” Furiosa declares, “Everything hurts.” She begins the movie in the Citadel as a much-respected imperator, visibly distressed as she watches the ritual release of water from a fertile cliff-top, home to Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his broken-gened sons. A starving mass of humanity holds up their plates and cups as Immortan Joe reminds them he’s their savior, that he will deliver them to “Valhalla” and oh, by the way, “Don’t get addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.”
Both lunatic and realistic, Joe’s caution is of a piece with his exhortations to the War Boys. Desperate and enthusiastic killers, cancerous and demented boys, they think they’re fully committed to becoming martyrs. “I am awaited,” proclaims Nux, “I am awaited in Valhalla.” It’s funny, and not, that he offers this explanation to a group of young women Furiosa has freed from his boss, Immortan Joe. Where Nux is all flaws, his blood and body cancerous, his half-life nearly over, the girls are supermodels, flawless boys’ fantasies who nonetheless sort out how to fight back, their long legs, perfect hair, and bared midriffs enchanting and appalling.
Like the War Boys, the girls are wild children (one plays with the music box cherished by the Feral Kid in Road Warrior, a lovely allusion) and like the War Boys, they serve a horrific master. Before Furiosa acts — bravely, deviously — they’re Joe’s breeders, his own embodied hope for a faultless male heir. They resent their designation, just as Max does (“Don’t damage the goods,” sneers one of the girls when she’s threatened). Joe and his minions chase after the escapees who hurtle along the desert and bog down in mud, seeking an alternative mythic place, the Green Place, which Furiosa recalls from her childhood, before she turned mad, before she shaved her head, blacked her eyes, and possessed a War Rig. Her memories include visions of women in charge, growing trees and fruits. It’s only a hard day’s journey away, she thinks, her memory imperfect and her desire overwhelming. “You know hope is a mistake,” Max reminds her.
Yes. Hope is also what makes Fury Road go. For all the cruelty and destruction in its many monsters’ hearts, the movie is a paean to hope. In part, as Miller has insisted in all of the Mad Max movies, this hope is manifest in stunts, in magic created by bodies rather than CGI (apart from Furiosa’s mechanical arm and some erased safety wires, the flying bodies, flipping cars, and leaping bikes are material things, filmed). Fights are choreographed like dances, gorgeous and ingenious. The Pole Cats show up late in a late chase, thrillingly bouncing on poles over moving vehicles, dipping in and out of open windows and open roofs, their violence daunting and their acrobatics astounding. When Max, still chained to Nux, fights Furiosa who fights Nux who fights the girls, their dance is like silent comedy, with full-tilt smackdown sound added.
Such mixing of beauty and bruising violence is a signature of the Mad Max movies. So too is Max’s ambiguity, his determination not to do anything and his inclination to do the mostly right thing. This is where Furiosa is both his reflection and his opposite. Like him, she seeks redemption, and like him, she’s good at everything needed to survive. But unlike Max, Furiosa knows what she wants.