David Lynch, a filmmaker so idiosyncratic that the best way to describe his work is by invoking his name, said movies can compensate for the limitations of language. In a New York Magazine article from 1990, he’s quoted as saying, “When you can talk about it, you’re not using cinema.” And yet it’s impossible not to talk about “Mad Max: Fury Road,” surely a piece of cinema in every sense of the word: it’s art and it’s definitely (one hell of) a movie.
“Fury Road” is not Lynchian; it’s an action film directed by George Miller. But it is equally unique and evocative, and if you add up each word spoken by its protagonist, you’ll be left with a paragraph of average length. Max (Tom Hardy) is laconic partly because turning a phrase won’t help him survive the trials of the desert wasteland in which he finds himself. Modern civilization has collapsed, resources are scarce, and a small society, referred to as the Citadel, farms breast milk and thrives on slave labor. A ghastly, boil-ridden patriarch, named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), maintains order through claims of divinity and by controlling the water supply.
All of this information is more or less revealed visually, distinguishing the film from blockbusters that over-explain their plots and themes by way of awkward, heavy-handed dialogue, even, and sometimes especially, when the subject matter is entry-level stuff. There is nothing wrong with simplicity. It is used to astonishing effect in “Fury Road,” essentially one long and consistently propulsive chase scene down infernal plains and through a variety of desolate landscapes.
Max, a man with a fractured psyche but a tremendous will to survive, has taken up with the fierce, resourceful Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who’s escaped the Citadel in a “war rig” with five women that Joe uses for breeding against their will. Learning of the scheme, Joe is incensed and sends his soldiers out to retrieve his “property.” They tail Furiosa in muscle cars and all-terrain vehicles also modified for combat.
The action, taking place in wide-open spaces that lend a palpable sense of vulnerability to everything on the screen, appears to have been accomplished mostly through practical effects. The clashing and clanging of the vehicles, the heat of the explosions, the blinding, suffocating dust storms are all the more thrilling because they don’t require any suspension of disbelief. It also helps that Miller, who directed the original “Mad Max” films starring a young Mel Gibson, frames his set pieces for maximum impact, moving the camera freely around the setting so there can be no doubt about its authenticity. “Fury Road” is a technical masterpiece, even something of a throwback. But it is far from regressive.
In a late turn of the plot, ingenious for its thematic and narrative simplicity, the movie reveals itself to be a story not about an escape, but about an uprising. Miller fills the frame with circles and other age-old symbols of revolution throughout. They aren’t clichés because they’re built right into the story and the movie’s visual scheme, such as an emphasis on steering wheels, Joe’s insignia, and the Citadel’s cog infrastructure.
“Fury Road” is also a cinematic coup: a $150 million production with a woman at its center. Don’t let the title fool you. This is Theron’s movie. As Furiosa, she is imposing, beautiful and clever, and the women she is helping are more resolute because of her. Which is to say that she is altogether righteous. Her cause is just, and if she doesn’t pave the way for more characters like her in the summer movie season, it will be because Hollywood failed her. That will be a real shame, because Theron and Miller, along with screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, have created more than a trailblazing feminist icon; they’ve used cinema to show us a life.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on May 21, 2015.