Mad Max: Fury Road - Story is King (Except When It's Not)

Let's lay all of our cards on the table here; Fury Road is probably the best action flick I've seen in years. 

 Yet, it's proven to be very polarizing in less critically grounded circles. That is to say, friends, bloggers and mostly regular people. I've found that about one in five of my friends didn't care for it, and it's always for the same reason:

"There is absolutely no story!" - Friend A

"I'm just more interested in movies that have deep, developed characters." - Friend B

"I just really hate car chases, I usually leave the room whenever they happen." - Friend C

Of the above three examples, I'd say that Friend C is the only person I'd say has a legitimate complaint. I mean, I don't understand it (who hates a sweet car case?!), but they are addressing a core component of the film and admitting that it was something they just don't enjoy. I would argue, that although you can fit all of Max's lines on a grocery receipt, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD boasts one of the best stories, with some of the strongest and most engaging characters we've seen from a blockbuster film since 2008's THE DARK KNIGHT, maybe even since 1999's THE MATRIX. 

The confusion is easily defined though, as very few conventional sequences are in place here to provide the exposition that a big budget narrative would normally require. 

The closest exchange we get is as follows: 

Furiosa: "Hey, what's your name?" 


Furiosa: "What do I call you?"

Max: "Does it matter?"

Normally it might play out more like this:

Furiosa: "What's your name?"

Max: "My name is Max"

Furiosa: "What are you doing out here?"

Max: "I was captured and enslaved by that band of war boys back there. I was strapped to one of their vehicles as a blood bag."

Furiosa: "A blood bag, huh?"

Max: "Yeah, he has like, a skin condition or something. So they were drawing my blood to keep the driver alive."

Furiosa: "That sounds rough."

Max: "It was very draining."

"Oh what a lovely joke!"

Fury Road follows one of the most important, but nearly forgotten, rules of visual storytelling: Show Don't Tell. I walked into the theater with no prior history with the Mad Max franchise. I think I saw about 5 minutes of Beyond Thunderdome on tv once, but beyond that I had no expectations or exposure to this world. Had the film been poorly told as a sequel, I should have had no clue what was going on. Yet, the audience is very subtly and simply guided into the narrative. By the end of the film's introduction, the most ignorant seat warmer can be fully prepared to embrace the abusurdity of this new, dark world. 

... although you definitely won't be prepared for how awesome it is. 

For example.

Then there's the plot arc itself... we only receive pertinent information as, and when, we need it. Take our antagonist, Immortan Joe. Those first few shots of his slaves equipping him with his grotesque armor over his... even more grotesque body communicates something subtle and terrifying. In a world where malformed humans abound, this one is especially disgusting, although we don't yet fully know why. Immediately after, he approaches his followers and provides them with a meager ration of water. Now we've seen his cruelty. Then, when Furiosa turns the Rig around... Immortan immediately opens a safe. Inside? Living quarters... for women. And now we have seen his utter depravity. The audience doesn't need to be told that Joe is evil, because we've witnessed it. The audience doesn't need to be told to root for the wives, because we've seen what they're running from. 

"You merely adopted the salt. I was born in it!" 

The entire film employs strong storytelling through visual ques and clever narrative nods. Take Max's brief hallucination as he observes The Wives fleeing across the desert. Immediately after he experiences a hallucination of his deceased daughter lifting her hand up to her father, Max lifts his own hand, palm outwards, up to his forehead in shock. Later, during the climactic car chase... Max has the same vision just as a henchman shoots him with a crossbow. Max lifts his hand up again, and barely slows the bolt enough to save his life. These little moments are incredibly relevant to the film's narrative integrity, as they round out our character's arcs. One of the first statements Max makes in the film comes full circle here: "It's hard to tell who is more crazy, me or everyone else." These hallucinations are a surefire sign of insanity, but with this small narrative nod we touch on one of the most important themes the film presents. It's possible to be mentally unstable, and maintain integrity in your soul. Max may hallucinate over his past, but that shame and that regret is what grounds his moral compass, and it's also what preserves him. He lives because of the guilt he feels. Guilt, doesn't enter into Immortan Joe's vocabulary. I could talk for hours over the many other narrative ques behind Max's character, but there's also Nux's trial of repentance, Furiosa's drive for redemption, Cheedo's forgiveness, and much more. There is just so much dense development here provided within an, admittedly, minimal amount of time. 

What's better is the film's lack of pretension. I can't pretend like there is anything to read into the War Rig as being some sort of battering ram which bursts down the walls of tyranny to lead the wives into sexual freedom. The War Rig is just that, a big ass oil rig lined with spikes, guns, and more spikes, which Furiosa and Max will use to ride their enemies off the road and into valhalla.

It's a very approachable, comprehensible, and fun flick. Sure there is a ton of symbolism here... but it's anything but subtle. Take the "milking" sequence during the film's first act, where we see a bunch of "breeders" being milked for... well... their milk. In one very quick shot, we see that this future society doesn't even pretend to not objectify women, using them as walking incubators who provide children and sustenance. One character off-handedly refers to the "breeders" as "things" stolen from Immortan Joe. Which brings me to our next point: 

I haven't even begun to touch on how the film seamlessly and miraculously has become a feminist manifesto without compromising it's foundation as an action/adventure ... yet, there is already so much out in the blogosphere on this subject, that I'd rather just direct you to other links for that. Take this interview Eve Ensler did with TIME magazine:

It's easily the most fun I've had at the theatre since Pacific Rim in 2013, and far better overall. You could take away the whole story, and the car chases alone are worth the ticket. You could take away the car chases alone (which easily fills 80% of the film), and the story would hold it's own as one of the strongest portrayals of sexual slavery in mainstream media we've ever seen. You could take away all of the political bias from the film, and it's still wild fun! Then again, to remove anything from this film would literally break it apart. It's brilliance is how well so many ideas and thrills blend perfectly together to tell a compelling story that is also a pulse-pounding adrenaline rush. 

To bring it back to my original point... Fury Road sidesteps the typical blockbuster approch to storytelling, with great results. Fury Road respects it's audience enough as to avoid coddling, and that frees up room for more car chases. The story is still totally rad, and even bears some significant heft (Furiosa realizing they have already seen "The Green Place", for example). Don't mistake this film for "not having a story." It's totally there in plain sight, and it's totally great. 

I don't hesitate to claim that this may be the best film this year. 

And Star Wars VII comes out this year. 

5/5 Stars

Three viewings in... I still love it.

Chris Keyes

Director of Digital Content