Oscars Round Up: ‘Fury Road’ has an inventiveness rarely seen in action films

For the final installment of our Oscars Round Up series, Pat Brown gives his take on a film with a staggering 10 Oscar nominations. Second only to ‘The Revenant,’ ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ has gotten the nod in categories from Best Picture and Best Director (George Miller) to Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Design. You can see it at FilmScene tonight, Friday, Feb. 26, at 10:15 p.m. as their For Your Consideration series in advance of the Oscars winds to a close (you can also catch the subject of Tuesday’s review, ‘Theeb,’ on Saturday, Feb. 27 at 1 p.m.).

Don’t miss the rest of our series: John Rigby’s review of ’45 Years,’ Warren Sprouse’s review of ‘Theeb,’ Matthew Byrd’s review of ‘Brooklyn,’ and Jaret Morlan’s review of ‘Room.’ Sound off in the comments: who are your top picks for the top categories?

Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t the biggest hit of the year, but, undoubtedly, it (along with, perhaps, The Martian) is the Best Picture nominee regarding which the tastes of critics and of the mass audience most closely align. Reviewers spent May 2015 trying to one-up each other’s nitro-boosted hyperbole about the film, while audiences made it one of the most successful R-rated films of last year. Still, it’s hard not to feel that an Oscar nomination somehow makes the movie less cool: Fury Road was the year’s rebellious, game-changing outsider — this despite its being a third-sequel-cum-reboot of a 35 year-old franchise. It was, in other words, the Bernie Sanders of 2015 movies. Actually getting the nomination threatens to tame it, turn all its energy and weirdness into something digestible, something more in line with business as usual.

The newest entry in director George Miller’s Australo-centric, gas-fueled, post-apocalyptic epic starts not where the series left off, but where the last two entries began: with the titular character (played this time around by Tom Hardy) wandering a desert wasteland, haunted by his past and hunted by the warring clans left in the wake of a thermonuclear war. Captured by one such clan, led with authoritarian cruelty by a masked water baron known as Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), Max becomes a “bloodbag,” supplying healthy blood to the clan’s radioactively poisoned War Boys (the lead Boy, Nux, is played by Nicholas Hoult).

Perhaps the most surprising element of the film is that while Max shares a name with the title, the true center of the story is the woman he encounters upon his escape from the War Boys — Immortan Joe’s trusted lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). It is Furiosa’s mission to liberate Joe’s five “wives” (his sex slaves) from bondage that provides the impetus both for Max’s escape and for the main thrust of the narrative from that point on.

Charlize Theron in 'Mad Max: Fury Road'
‘Fury Road’ quickly becomes her movie: Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in a still from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road.’
Furiosa’s motivations for abandoning her post as Immortan Joe’s most beloved warrior are never made completely explicit, though we are given bits of dialogue, and visual and emotional clues, regarding her identity and history. Her formative trauma — unlike Max’s — isn’t given to us in images of hallucinations and voiceover narration, but more subtly, in her steampunk-style prosthetic arm, her uncompromising demeanor, her total lack of fear. (The latter is in contrast, one might observe, to Max, whose tough, hyper-masculine exterior belies an anxious, frightened ego.)

Fury Road quickly becomes her movie. Furiosa, as played with intensity and unspoken depth by Theron, is the most original and well-characterized action hero of recent memory, and Theron’s performance is the best female performance in an action film ever, I would argue. The film’s representation of her, and its telling of a story that foregrounds issues of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, sexual exploitation and woman-led rebellion (without spoiling: she and the wives are not the film’s only women), have earned it something of a reputation as a feminist action flick.

While there are certainly some objections to such a classification, including legitimate questions about the representation of Joe’s wives and the qualification that the film is hardly politically radical, the movie is far beyond its action movie peers in this regard. Its relatively progressive take on gender was thrown into particular relief given the woefully backwards and even demeaning representation of women in last summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World. Whatever its shortcomings, issues of gender and power occupy the center of the detailed world Miller and his fellow filmmakers construct.

The richness of the world of Fury Road is realized by Miller’s dedication to presenting information on the go, to telling a story through action — to showing rather than telling. The film trusts the audience to follow along as War Boys and Immortan Joe speak in their invented idiom and reference their vehicle-based religion (the dead will ride with Immortan Joe “shiny and chrome on the highways of Valhalla”), without supplying us with much plodding exposition — or much dialogue, for that matter. Moreover, unlike recent superhero action movies, which can only recount their goofy mythology with a wink, Fury Road embraces its weirdness, needing no cheeky acknowledgment that this is all very silly.

'Mad Max: Fury Road'
A still from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Miller updates the brash aesthetics of his Road Warrior (1981) with a style that retains the latter’s sandy vistas, its DIY war vehicles, its high-speed battles and its disintegrating slow-motion car crashes, while also fitting right in to the faster cutting schema of action movies today. The action in Fury Road has a rhythm that depends not only on the cuts, but also on the extension and contraction of time through slow and, yes, fast motion. Despite, or actually by way of, these heavily stylized devices, Miller and editor Margaret Sixel make the film’s action easy to follow, and with a deft sense of rhythm involve us bodily in the chase.

No review of the film would be complete, of course, without an acknowledgment of the originality of its action. The film has an inventiveness rarely seen in action films, not only in scenario conceptualization and choreography, but also in its imagining of the adaptations post-apocalyptic humans will make in order to keep killing each other. How do you board a 2,000-horsepower, armored tanker adorned with gunner nests? Why, by placing your soldiers atop 20-foot poles that swing like pendulums, of course.

The film’s stylistic excess works thematically, as the film is about extremity: the extremes to which humans may go at the end of the world, the extreme violence of power built on exploitation. Ultimately, though, it’s also about the possibility of redemption, and not just because, in the movie’s most blatantly expository moment, the characters tell us it is. Through its unrelenting action, it actually tells a story about unique characters that has weight, that takes its own material seriously. Lacking much dialogue and most overt emoting that isn’t rage, Mad Max: Fury Road nevertheless turns out to be a powerful story about self-forgiveness, redemption and solidarity under the most impossible of circumstances.

'Mad Max: Fury Road'
Joe’s wives on the run.

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