After a thirty year hiatus director George Miller returns to cinemas with the long-awaited fourth installment in his Mad Max franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road. This movie had a famously troubled production, going over budget and falling behind schedule, but sometimes nightmarish film shoots end up producing true cinematic gems (see also: Apocalypse Now, Jaws, The Hurt Locker), and this is undoubtedly the case with Fury Road. It’s a gonzo blockbuster of epic scale that pushes reset on the CGI-dominated spectacle of mainstream movies. It’s simultaneously a dumb movie about people in a wasteland chasing each other in souped-up cars, and a smart movie about feminine assertiveness and agency. Fury Road is gorgeous and exhilarating, but it’s also an elegantly told story that requires no exposition to understand.
I sometimes ding movies for being “too plotty”, by which I mean not that the story is complex, but that the film is failing to fully service its plot. As much as I like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of its problems is that more than once the momentum of the narrative is halted so that one character can explain a plot point to another, such as the scene in which Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff get a history lesson from the computerized Arnim Zola. That is not great storytelling—if you have to stop your movie to impart information, you’re doing something wrong.
Movies are visual, and most of the information in a story can be transmitted visually, but too often movies, especially these big blockbuster types, fail to fully utilize that visual language to tell their story. Fury Road, for instance, establishes a patriarchal culture that forces women into sexual and reproductive slavery in thirty seconds, with a two-shot sequence showing women hooked up to milk machines tracking into a look at the chambers of the “prized breeders”, who scrawled We’re not things above their beds. It’s a horrifying and evocative sequence that communicates everything the audience needs to form antipathy toward the villain and sympathy for the fleeing female protagonists.
There’s a lot about Fury Road to go bananas over, from the balls-out action sequences to the lavish production design (from Colin Gibson, with art direction by Shira Hockman and Jacinta Leong), to John Seale’s stunning cinematography, to the score from Junkie XL, but the thing that really stands out about Fury Road is its pared-down narrative and the highly visual nature of the storytelling. This is a simple story about a group of people escaping a place and being pursued—that’s pretty much the entire movie. The characters band together out of necessity and conversation is necessarily limited to their immediate needs in the moment. There are only a handful of conversations that extend further than, “I need you to do X while I do Y.” And yet the characters are fully fleshed out, and the relationships between them are dynamic and rewarding. And it’s entirely because of how they relate to one another in frame.
Tom Hardy steps into Mel Gibson’s shoes as Max Rockatansky, the one-time cop turned post-apocalyptic survivor. This is Max’s fourth time on screen, but Fury Road stands on its own, with the events of past movies alluded to as PTSD episodes Max suffers intermittently, which is an elegant solution to a thirty-year break in continuity. New to the franchise is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed badass and the heart of the movie. Fury Road is really the story of Furiosa’s redemption—for what, we never quite know. Presumably it’s whatever awful shit she had to do to survive under the tyrannical rule of Immortan Joe (Mad Max veteran Hugh Keays-Byrne), the creepezoid masked king of the wasteland. It doesn’t really matter for WHAT Furiosa is seeking redemption, it just matters that she IS.
This is the brilliance of Miller’s script, co-written with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris. Motivation is undeniably present—each character acts and reacts in consistent ways, so clearly the actors know the why and wherefore. But narratively, that’s buried under the immediacy of the action. The heft of the storytelling is in the action, not the dialogue. Immortan Joe’s horde of fanatical “Warboys” don’t need to be explained—their fanaticism is graphically apparent in their self-mutilation and sheer willingness to die. Likewise, the Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) undergoes a significant transformation not because anyone says anything to him, but because he keeps not dying when he wants to. His repeated failures lead to change, and it all happens internally, no heart to heart required.
Fury Road relies heavily on the visual language of film to tell its story, largely foregoing dialogue and completely jettisoning exposition in favor of a codified language unique to the world depicted on screen. Emotions are palpable and motivations are clearly transmitted by how characters react and what decisions they make, but because every shot and frame of the movie is so well considered and deliberately packed with information, little actual dialogue is required to communicate these elements. For a movie that features a dude with a flamethrower guitar, Fury Road is incredibly elegant cinema.