Mad Max Fury Road – George Miller and the feminist touch. (Film Review)
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
One of the strengths of the Mad Max franchise is its undisclosed historical time frame. This is never truer than in the first Mad Max film, when an opening sequence informs us of the near future setting, but remains poignantly ambiguous, as if to declare the exasperation of existing problems. A favourite theme of postapocalyptic films is nuclear devastation, and yet we have been told (at the start of Mad Max: The Road Warrior) that this never happened to Max’s world, and that the degradation of society occurred as a misuse of natural resources. The vision makes for a potent message, because Miller offers a suggestion that our current behaviour, if not checked, is headed for the death of our species, and that encapsulates the meaning behind all the Mad Max films, which repeatedly cite civilization as a form of evolutionary salvation. The first film, Mad Max, where Max faces an essentially nihilistic world where there is little difference between good guys and bad, is answered in all the following films, where Max’s salvation comes, not from protecting his wife and child, but from engaging in projects that are good for all humanity. For George Miller, this is an answer to the nihilism that he presents as inherent in the masculine drive, a force that has no choice but to consume itself. Max is never reformed nor is his psyche healed (he is Mad Max after all) but his relief from himself lies in his choice regarding the focus of his potentially destructive energy.
Mad Max: Fury Road then, is the film hard-line feminists would want, that ironically, no woman would be allowed to make. The Mad Max franchise, while immaculately assembled, laced with genuine cult aesthetic and both the first of its kind and the best of its kind is not a series of films directed toward women. And yet, in Mad Max: Fury Road, we have the very embodiment of cultural feminism beautifully represented in a film that is the equal of, if not better than, the previously high bar set by Miller in his Mad Max films. The thing is about reproductive rights, and women standing up and claiming their bodies for themselves and the construction of a better world, refusing access to purveyors of anger, aggression and any testosterone fueled machismo, alluded to as the cause of all this trouble in the first place.
Mad Max films are famous for their narrative structure. They use sparse language, sticking instead to an astounding clarity of exposition that exists in the detail of the set, costume and action sequence detail that reveals narrative through an association with symbols. The best example I can think of to display this (I’ve only seen Mad Max:Fury Road once at this point) are in Mad Max: The Road Warrior, the second in the franchise and arguably (Fury Road may topple it) the best. As a sign of appreciation, Max is awarded two bullets as a gift, a powerful signal implying trust in his skill and his judgement in a world where bullets are scarce. The audience knows without being told, because of the structure of the film, this is a gift of unimaginable price. A unique immersion in George Miller’s world takes place because sensory awareness is never interrupted by exposition. It is this unique and powerful narrative device that Miller brings to Mad Max: Fury Road, and in so doing taps into a masculine language that delivers a powerful feminist message. When Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays Byrne who played Toecutter in the first Mad Max) comes to his boudoir to find ‘his’ women missing, he faces writing on the wall of the room, “You broke the world.” This harkens back to the biblical tale of Belshazzar who bore witness to the hand of God writing on his wall, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting” at the desecration of the temple of Jerusalem in the biblical book of Daniel. In other words, you fucked it up. Now the women are fighting back.
Thus begins the one long ‘car chase’ that essentially is the warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) taking the Five Wives (one of whom is pregnant with Joe’s child) to the ‘green place’ in which a colony of powerful warrior women who carry seeds and test soil to find a way to replenish and nourish the earth, do their work. The women of the tribe are older, Melissa Jaffer (who did all her own stunts and is a motorcycle warrior) is seventy-eight. The breeders have decided to follow Furiousa themselves, they are no longer allowing themselves to be chattels, rather they have risen and made an irreversible decision to move away from the male tribes of Immortan Joe. Through a convoluted series of plot points, Max (Tom Hardy) will join the women and help them fight, as will one or two others, but for the most part, this a women against men battle that results in women turning the tables, defeating the men and claiming their place as rulers of the city. Their first act is to release water into the township so everyone has access, but even more significantly, as they rise above the crowds to move in on the palace, they take no men with them. The message is clear. The older women have battled and defeated the army. Those who carry the seeds will be working to repopulate the earth. Reproductive rights trumps sperm power.
George Miller himself is a medical doctor who has been following the feminist perspective for a long time, making films like The Witches of Eastwick and Lorenzo’s Oil, each in their own way depictions of powerful females taking possession of their bodies or of their needs. For the work on Mad Max: Fury Road, he brought in feminist consultant Eve Ensler to work with the women and the script. Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues, has worked with abused women and sex slaves in the Congo, Haiti, Bosnia, Japan and other countries. As with the previous Mad Max films, it is Millers attention to detail that makes the difference and transforms Mad Max: Fury Road from another film where powerful women are sanctioned because they act like men, to a film about women driven to an extreme act of self-preservation because of constant abuse. Included in this is Millers repeat playing with the male gaze, from Max’s first look at the women in the desert (they’re transparent robes are wet making them look like babes at a car wash) through to the warrior colonies use of a naked Megan Gale (who is not sexualised) as bait in their self-defence. Miller slowly slides perspective so that women can use their sexuality as a weapon against men, while maintaining the overarching narrative theme; that they now chose, and they are in control. This upends the viewers ability to see the women only as sex objects and structures male desire as weakeness to be exploited.
Previous Mad Max films have slated fuel and water as the rare commodities propelling testosterone fueled clashes of ownership, but Mad Max: Fury Road gives us female reproductive rights as the battle ground for the future survival of civilization, again tapping into that very successfuul blurring of the now and the future in linking his dystopia with our current day. I suspect if a woman tried to get a film made in Hollywood based on the tennets of cultural feminism she would be laughed out of the room – in fact I don’t suspect, I know that is the case because it has happened. And now a man as done it, and wrapped it in a beautifully made film that appeals in every way to the masculine drive and the male gaze. So we are left with the strange knowledge, exclusive to our time, that the feminist narrative can be told, just not by women.