Mad Max: Fury Road is to the action genre what espresso is to coffee; a distilled essence with absolutely no frills. As with espresso, Mad Max, in all its high octane, blood pumping glory, is a matter of taste. Despite what its legions of fans would have you believe, the film is rather dismal in the departments of character development and world building, and is almost utterly devoid of any meaningful dialogue. You might think that this lack leaves the film toothless, but on the contrary, there is something unadulterated about the film’s commitment to storytelling purely via action. It is a taller order than it seems – director George Miller opts to entirely forego any explanation of the characters’ backgrounds and their settings instead letting their various frantic, violent struggles tell that tale instead. In the process, a great deal undeniably falls through the cracks – the film relies on the action, not the plot, to provide coherence – but the end result is a film that has shed all unnecessary baggage, presenting a story that is unabashedly over the top, fuelled by a madman’s fervour but still capable of maintaining an absolute death grip on the audience’s attention.
There is no shortage of problems with the movie. From the circular plot to the poor characterization, it feels like Miller went for an incredibly minimalist approach, providing his audience with the absolute bare minimum needed to keep the coherent. Audiences expecting explanations and elaborations will be sorely disappointed – the story exists only to justify the action. It’s a shame because there are some fascinating aspects of the story that never get the attention they deserve, whether it is the rival factions populating the characters’ world or the fanatic social structure of Immortan Joe’s cult. Yet, clear as it is that the movie’s plot is lacking, one has to marvel at how effective the marginal plot provided turned out to be. Anyone who gives the plot any further thought will find themselves automatically inventing ways for the various plot elements to come together but whether they find comfort or frustration in knowing that the conclusion of their musings doesn’t matter, depends on the viewers themselves.
Miller’s characters follow a similar model – the film provides only the most basic of outlines of the characters’ stories and motivations, leaving the audience to piece together, or even invent, the non-critical aspects. The idea here is clear enough; only a small fistful of information is absolutely necessary to follow and appreciate the movie. Any more than that would only complicate the story without adding much value. To an extent, it works – Max’s flashbacks, Furiosa’s desperate determination, even Nux’s redemption, are all arcs developed primarily through the film’s many action sequences rather than through any character defining monologues. However, it isn’t enough: the characters feel stillborn and the few quiet scenes the film uses to delineate the actions sequences, feel awkward and unnatural. The lack of character development is also a little glaring – despite the movie’s title, Max’s character barely changes and more often than not, he is feels more like a spectator than a participant. Luckily, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa makes up some of those deficiencies by doing some heavy lifting both in terms of the action and the character development. It still feels a little hollow though, as though her character’s emotional journey was thrown in just for the sake of it. Surprisingly, it is Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux, who has the most satisfying journey, from an irritating, overly eager enemy soldier, to a loyal, useful member of Team Max.
The movie fires on all cylinders only when the characters are fighting and are at odds with each other, but the moment . It is fitting, since most of them have never known any other life but it is also the consequence of our generation’s approach to filmmaking taken to its logical extreme. Often enough, we have seen movies and television shows have their stories modified in order to fit in more of what sells – regardless of whether that is sex or action. In Mad Max: Fury Road, action is kept front and centre; more than Tom Hardy or Charlize Theron, the action is the star of the show and every other aspect of the movie shifts and twists to accommodate it. So just what is it about the action that makes it worthy of such devotion? There are a few things, really. Without getting into too deep into the details, the scenes’ cinematography stands out. Miller uses a center framing technique that allows the audience to easily identify what the focal point is and this, in turn, allows them to follow the action and make sense of it all, even when there are a billion things happening on the screen. Beyond that though, there is also the reckless abandon that the entire movie captures so well – Miller refuses to be held back by what seems likely or even possible but instead just let’s his characters go all out, all the time.
Ultimately though, what makes Mad Max: Fury Road so unique is not its reliance on action, nor is it its minimalist approach to plot and world-building. Instead, the most memorable aspect of the movie is its tone. With its oddly compatible mixture of black comedy and extreme violence, Mad Max never takes itself seriously enough to fall into the much derided grim-dark territory but at the same time, you always get the sense that the situation is constantly on the edge of disaster. If there was ever a movie that felt like it ran purely on a mixture of adrenaline and cocaine, this would be it.
Tom Hardy – Mad Max
Charlize Theron – Imperator Furiosa
Nicholas Hoult – Nux
Roger Ebert (this is from a writer on the site, not the late, great critic)