Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road, and doing the right thing

Normally I make an effort not to publish articles that do nothing more than echo the prevailing wisdom of the internet, but I'm going to make an exception for Mad Max: Fury Road because this magnificent film had as profound an effect on me as it did on everyone else, and I feel it would be somehow remiss not to declare this on Well-Rendered.

If only to make life easier for future biographers.

Before you read on, please be aware that this article contains all the spoilers.

In the event that either you've seen Mad Max: Fury Road and forgotten it already or you're a massive Well-Rendered fan who for some reason is not planning to see it (Hi Mum! Hope you're enjoying the Spaced box set I coerced you into borrowing!), the film is a part-reboot, part-sequel to the 80s Australian sci-fi trilogy starring Mel Gibson, who had yet to prove just how well cast he was in the title role.

Anyway, Fury Road was conceived and directed by series creator George Miller, before being stuck in development hell for decades, eventually arriving a full 30 years after 1985's Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. It's a two-hour car chase driven (sorry) by a desperate attempt to rescue five enslaved "wives" from post-apocalyptic warlord/cult leader/all-round bad egg Immortan Joe.

At the beginning of the film, Max Rockatansky is captured by Immortan Joe's raiders, tattooed with his medical records and strung up as a "blood bag" for the unhinged, tumour-ridden Nux. Nux is a "War Boy", a member of Immortan Joe's death cult who has traded freedom for blood transfusions and a chance to die in battle, preferring to go out in a blaze of glory rather than be slowly eaten alive by his tumours.

When Joe realises his wives have been taken from him, he heads up a vast convoy of War Boys to hunt them down. Nux's car is wrecked during the chase, so he and Max find themselves on the other side of the action, helping the wives escape slavery as Joe's grotesque army pursues the fugitives across the desert.
Max is the protagonist: he's swept up in the bewildering action in the same way as the viewer, we see the world through his eyes, and it's his emotional journey we follow. But the hero of the film is actually the one-armed War Rig driver Imperator Furiosa, who uses a delivery mission as cover for her daring rescue of the wives.

Straight away, it is clear that Furiosa is no Black Widow or Gamora. She's no bouncy-haired, catsuit-clad ice queen, effortlessly swatting away the bad guys and rolling her eyes as her male counterparts make wisecracks. While her comic-book cousins are high-kicking their way through henchmen with their foxy leather boots, Furiosa is sweating profusely and thumping Max around the head with the stump of her arm.

Of course, Furiosa is not the first female action hero to be cast in this tough, unsexualised mould. Obvious forerunners are Alien's Ellen Ripley and Terminator's Sarah Connor, but what makes Furiosa so special is the idealogical nature of her self-imposed mission. Ripley and Connor were thrust into extreme situations and forced to survive against adversaries who were out to get them from the start, but Furiosa gives up the security of a privileged position in Joe's army in order to do something selfless.

It's one thing to become a sweat-stained killer when the only alternative is death, but quite another to relinquish your power and possibly your life for the sake of others. True, in going on the run Furiosa hopes to return to "the green place" of her childhood, but if that's all she cared about she would have just stolen a motorcycle and fled, not incite Joe's wrath by, as he sees it, stealing his property.

Furiosa's quest encapsulates the film's major theme: women fighting to reclaim ownership of their bodies. This is almost unprecedented in the action genre, which generally uses female bodies as rewards for the male heroes, or at the very least decoration for the male audience. "WE ARE NOT THINGS!" declare the wives at various points throughout the film, as much to the viewer as much as to Joe and his indoctrinated army. For the institutions represented allegorically in the film by Joe's Citadel, this is defiance. For the women in the audience, it is a rallying cry.

What makes this even more powerful, and makes Fury Road almost unique among action films on this scale is the sheer number of female characters, and the variation between them. Unlike so many female action heroes who, as the sole woman in a lineup of men, have to be grimly capable and blandly alluring Strong Female Characters, Furiosa is surrounded by women who between them explore diverse, equally valid notions of femininity. As a result, each one is free to inhabit her own identity, explore her own values and exhibit her own flaws and strengths; no one character needs to carry the narrative burden of representing all women.

There are the wives, of course, chosen by Immortan Joe for their beauty and forced to bear his children, who between them exhibit several characteristics and behaviours conventionally associated with femininity. The Splendid Angharad is gracious and forgiving, Cheedo the Fragile is scared of the outside world and reluctant to give up the comforts of the Citadel, and Capable develops a gentle, nurturing relationship with damaged Nux.

In this way, the wives "create a necessary space for the idea that women can be strong even without adopting speech and actions culturally associated with manhood" (Dawn Tefft, writing for Truthout). The fact that the five actors who played them worked with Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler in order to develop their characters is testament to Miller's commitment to authenticity and his refusal to rely on tropes.

When we first meet the wives, they are clad (by Joe) in gauzy slivers of white fabric and fanged chastity belts, but as the film progresses they remove the belts with bolt cutters, shroud themselves with sturdy clothes and adorn themselves with talismans they fashion from objects found on their journey. In exerting control over their appearance, these women start to reclaim their bodies: fitting, given that Fury Road is all about their right to leave their chastity belts in the dust where they damn well belong.

And yet. For all that is empowering about Furiosa and the wives, they are elite, representing certain unattainable ideals for many female viewers. The wives are played by supermodels, and while their beauty is a curse in the patriarchal society Joe enforces, it also makes them special, in part because the particular nature of their suffering causes Furiosa to save them rather than any of Joe's other slaves.

As for Furiosa herself (played by Oscar-winning superwoman Charlize Theron), though her buzz cut and war paint might tone down her conventional attractiveness, she is nevertheless a hardened fighter and charismatic leader who possesses both the wherewithal and the opportunity to pull together the plan in the first place. She's so brave, so skilled, and so heroic that she risks being an object of admiration to the female viewer rather than an inspiring role model.

Fury Road may be fantastical in many ways, but sadly the abuses heaped upon its characters are all too real, and in our troubled world it's easy to think that if you can't fix everything, it's not worth fixing anything. If you can't summon the courage and the resources to be Furiosa, why bother?

Fury Road offers an answer in the form of the Vuvalani of Many Mothers, a tribe of middle-aged biker women whom Furiosa's party encounter at what they think will be the apex of their journey.

Their all-female society is dying out, but they're still fighting for it and, in the case of the eldest, Keeper of the Seeds, battling to preserve flora that would otherwise be lost forever under the harsh desert sun. Life for them is a constant struggle for survival formed of a series of tiny choices made every day, as opposed to the dramatic stand taken by Furiosa, whose defiance starts a war.

Of course, had Furiosa smuggled these women, rather than the wives, out of the Citadel, Joe wouldn't have bothered sending a convoy after her. He values women for their fertility alone and assesses their worth based on the physical signifiers of that fertility, and judging by what we see on screen, this is an impulse he shares with the overwhelming majority of Hollywood's powerful men.

When the Vuvalini rode beside Furiosa, Max, Nux and the wives to confront Joe and take back the Citadel for the people he's enslaved, I held back tears because I'd never seen heroes like them on screen before, and their absence had sent me a message I didn't realise I'd internalised. 79-year old Melissa Jaffer, who played Keeper of the Seeds and did her own stunts explained the importance of the role thus:

"The roles that one is offered at this age, quite frankly, you're either in a nursing home, you're in a hospital bed dying, you're suffering from dementia, or in fact, in two cases, I was offered two characters who'd actually died and come back to life. So when this role came along, I thought well, I won't get another chance like this before I die, and that's why I took it. It was absolutely wonderful. Wonderful role."

There have been thousands, probably millions of words written about the feminism in the film because it really is so shockingly unusual in an action film on this scale. There are plenty of character-driven dramas and comedies that explore feminist issues (...still not enough), but while those are equally important as Fury Road, they aren't normally so earth-shattering. Action films are spectacles - and this is more of a spectacle than most - but they also function on an allegorical level in which the hero engages in conflict with an antagonistic force, almost universally prevailing and thus fulfilling a power fantasy that we all have: facing our problems head on, and winning.

In most cases, the hero is a man. In the rare cases where the hero is a woman, she either adopts characteristics culturally associated with men (as Tefft points out, above), is designed with the male gaze in mind, or both. She is almost always the only women with a significant role in the story. This means it is hard for women to live out the cathartic fantasy that a good action film should provide.

Fury Road does afford women this opportunity and deserves an enormous amount of praise for doing so, but it's worth noting that the monolithic cultural significance of its feminism somewhat overshadows the arcs of its male characters Max and Nux.

Immortan Joe has created a society where everyone except him is reduced to a "thing", not just his beautiful wives. Older women are milked to feed his newest offspring, stricken young men like Nux are fed into his war machine, while healthy ones like Max are used as batteries to keep the War Boys ticking over until the time comes for them to sacrifice themselves on his behalf.

Nux is played by Nicholas Hoult, who reportedly modelled his performance on an Andrex puppy, a relentlessly enthusiastic naïf who desires only his master's acknowledgement and approval. Of course, this only works in Joe's favour as long as his cruel authority is all Nux knows; as soon as Capable and later Max, Furiosa and the rest show him some kindness, he switches sides.

Unlike Nux, Max has known a life outside the Citadel, but he is scarcely more functional because he is severely traumatised, tormented by memories of his failure to protect his family. His motivation is not as simple as wanting to atone for the past; as he states in that trailer (above), he has been "reduced to a single instinct: Survive". Indeed, he initially only rides shotgun alongside Furiosa because she convinces him that he stands a better chance of survival with her than he does by returning to Joe.

However, as the stakes increase, the two slowly build a relationship of trust, with Max choosing to save the day at cost to himself on more than one occasion. For a protagonist, Max has very few lines, and Tom Hardy does a wonderful, surprisingly understated job of portraying the erratic motivations of a man whose moral compass has been gradually eroded by tragedy, abuse, and the scorching heat of the desert.

Ultimately, it is Max's idea that the group return to reclaim the Citadel and free its people from Joe's tyrannical clutches, rather than try and scratch out a living from the salt flats to the west of the Vuvalani's domain. But when they ultimately succeed and the elated War Boys lift their liberators high above the cheering citizens, Max is not among them. Instead, he silently exchanges a respectful look with Furiosa before disappearing into the crowd.

He's as free and alone at that moment as he would have been had he just abandoned the women to their fate on the salt flats, but the difference is that he's done something powerful, and good. Although he is too inscrutable and damaged for the viewer to truly gauge his thoughts, the penultimate scene in which he saves Furiosa's life with a blood transfusion from his own arm before finally telling her his name (which he has never told anyone throughout the course of the film) shows the redemptive power of self-sacrifice and camaraderie.

I'm being a little dramatic here, but before I went to see Fury Road I felt like Furiosa in that moment: a part of me slowly leaking away through wounds inflicted by countless stories that had taken the easy way out by presenting a conventional vision that gave tacit approval to the broken power structures currently in place in our world. Making Fury Road clearly took a huge amount of courage, tenacity and love - I haven't even mentioned the incredible art direction, the astonishing level detail, or how gruelling it reportedly was to film - and I'm so grateful that all involved, particularly Miller himself, cared enough to bring it to completion.

It was the right thing to do.

All images © Warner Bros. 2015

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