Mad Max: Fury Road, and the Melding of Action and Character Work

Mad Max: Fury Road

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Genre: Post-apocalyptic/Action

Synopsis: Mad Max is a wanderer through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, when he’s captured by War Boys of Immortan Joe, a powerful and tyrannical warlord. He becomes unwittingly embroiled in an escape attempt consisting of other captives and one of the warlord’s top officials. Now the motley group needs to actually get away without stabbing each other in the back, and then figure out how they’re going to live.

Verdict: Fun and awesome.

This is very much an action movie, and yet, action movies don’t usually make me care as much as this one did. It managed to hit me on an emotional level despite having very little room for character work–a limitation it neatly got around by having a lot of the character work happen during the action. Which is really cool.

These fighting scenes were not empty of anything but kicking ass. We learn more about who these people are by what they’re doing, who they’re choosing to fight, and who they’re keeping an eye on during those scenes. This relies pretty heavily on the actors, especially the leads, being able to convey what their character is feeling with facial expressions and body language–there is not a lot of talking. Fortunately, the cast can pull it off, and it creates a really interesting and unusual dynamic, where the narrative doesn’t have to separate the character work from the action.

My understanding of the is that Max wanders into other people’s stories in each installment, then wanders back out at the end.

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In this movie, he wanders into Furiosa’s story. Furiosa drives the story with her actions. She’s the one to break out Immortan Joe’s wives, she’s the one whose plan everyone follows, and she’s the one who holds the future in her hands. She’s trying to do better than she’s done, and to find something better. She’s badass. Her disability is never commented on by any of the characters, but the camera makes sure to visually show that disability, clearly, several times. It’s there and part of her life, but it’s just one part of her life.

As a character, she’s pretty compelling. She cares about the people around her, but she doesn’t bother to demonstrate that to anyone in particular. It just comes out in her actions. Or in her facial expressions, because Charlize Theron can act with her eyes alone.

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Max starts out as a loner, not caring about anyone or anything other than survival. He holds onto that outlook somewhat desperately. He’s dragged into this story kicking and screaming, and from the get-go, all he wants is to get out. He slowly gets to the point where he can’t quite bring himself to walk away, uncaring. Being out for himself is a decision he’s come to consciously, but it doesn’t seem to be a natural state for him. And even in a movie where hardly anyone likes to talk, he stands out as particularly averse. Possibly to avoid making a connection with anyone, although he and Furiosa seemed to understand each other fine without verbal communication.

The treatment of Immortan Joe’s wives in this film was refreshing. And after watching the first episode of Daredevil where he saves a bunch of women from human trafficking–all of those women acting like a monolith, all screaming at the same time, and all huddling helplessly while the fight breaks out (seriously, how does not even one of them think to run at the first sign of a distraction?)–this was something I needed to see.

Because all of these women reacted differently to their experiences–decidedly not a monolith. They had agency of their own, but didn’t magically become uber-competent out of nowhere, either. The first time Furiosa got into a fight with someone threatening them, they stayed out of her way and tried to keep from getting hurt by the aggressor, but also looked for every opportunity to help. If he was grappling her, they tried to pry him off. They didn’t just huddle in a corner and watch other people determine their fate. They did whatever they could to make a difference, irrespective of how much or how little that was.

That really hit me, because it’s something we never get to see, even when we should. So it was powerful to see these women in their impractical dresses doing manual labor without comment, or protecting Furiosa with whatever means they had available to them. (And having the staging for that take those actions seriously.) Female characters (good female characters) abound, and that’s definetly something we’re starved for as a society.

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And Nux, raised to be cannon fodder and taught to believe it was glorious, that it would get him into Valhalla in the afterlife–he’s both frustrating and heartbreaking. He serves to remind us that most of the people our protagonists fight against have been used and failed by the people that raised them. That they don’t know better because they haven’t been taught better. And that somewhere inside these boys who’ve been crafted into weapons serving Immortan Joe’s will, there are people who’ll never get to live their own lives, or know why they should ever want to.

And all of this, from an action movie.

We may only ever get bits and pieces of any characters’ history, and they’ll say little about themselves. But Mad Max demonstrates that we don’t need to know who they were to know who they are. We just have to watch what they do.

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