Monday, June 1, 2015

The Most Furious Road

I was not keen to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Let me be more precise: I was fascinated by Fury Road's obvious bombast and visual mayhem, but it seemed to offer the same old ultraviolence that we've seen in other movies, with an added bonus of "explicit rape culture" and "preggos in peril," two tropes that I'm actively dialing down supporting with my purchasing power. I've seen them too many times to care any more.

Since its release earlier this month, Fury Road has inspired roughly seventy billion internet think pieces. They range from the absurd MRA responses, to disabled folks being like, "Oh look, there's me!" to focusing on the climate change that might one day shove this film into the "documentary" category. Most of the articles, though, have talked about Mad Max's surprisingly feminist angle. It's unexpected, to be sure. But also? One thousand percent awesome.

Let's backtrack for a moment. The movie's visual effects are simply stunning. I had remind myself a number of times that, oh yeah, I was in a movie theatre. The cinematography is impeccable: for a movie that has dozens of car crashes and explosions, many of which happen inside a sandstorm, it's surprisingly easy to watch. None of that shaky-cam shooting style that's so en vogue with CGI-driven boom-a-thons. Just pure speed, a desert palette that easily flips from midday sun to star-flecked, and a production designer unleashed on all the tumors, nipple clamps, and silver spraypaint he could ever wish for. The movie looks insane, but it takes your breath away without trying to give you a concussion at the same time.

The plot is centered around the five young "wives" (read: sex slaves) of the repulsively leathery villain Immortan Joe, and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron)'s attempt to rescue them before they bear Immortan Joe's children and are discarded, their purpose having been served. Furiosa hides the Wives in her nigh-indestructible tanker, called the War Rig, and fights tooth and nail, usually at 80 miles an hour, to make sure they're all free of Immortan Joe. She's trying to take them to "the green place," her childhood home, and presumably the last oasis in this otherwise arid world.

Max is also there.

That's not say that Max himself doesn't matter. He does, just not in the way we expect him to. Max, a role originated by racist-ass Melly Gibsons, has a certain cachet within the action/apocalypse genre. My husband pointed out that The Road Warrior, the second in the Mad Max trilogy (but the first to make a splash in North America) was pretty much responsible for what we think of as the post-apocalypse aesthetic: the black leather, the stripped-down cars, the repurposed safety gear as armor. But in this installment, the film really does belong to the women. Max is like a Trojan horse: his name got us into the theatre, but Furiosa has nearly everyone cheering.

For an action movie—actually, for any Hollywood movie—Mad Max is just chock full of women. There are fat women, old women, young women, pregnant women, disabled women. At one point, Furiosa punches Max in the face with her amputated stump hard enough to knock him back on his ass. This is not something I've seen before. In an age when Hollywood is constantly trying to one-up itself with ever-crazier fight scenes and end-of-the-world stakes (see: Transformers, Avengers, the Fast and the Furious franchise), a simple punch—albeit one that was delivered by a disabled female character—was what it took to knock me back, too.

But the feminist angle isn't just window dressing. While it's possible to imagine the film with a much more traditional cast—some burly, taciturn man rescuing those poor, lithe, perfect Wives—Charlize Theron inhabits Furiosa with, yes, fury. And intensity. And the sense that she herself might have spent some time in those gauzy linen outfits, or could have been involved in getting the Wives to Joe in the first place. It's clear that, whatever Furiosa was doing before she freed the Wives, she was part and parcel of Joe's societal machine, and she bears a burden of guilt for it. Max, as an outsider and a kidnap victim himself, is interested in freedom, but that doesn't necessarily extend beyond the borders of his own body; Furiosa, on the other hand, sees freedom as something that everyone should have. She drives for Immortan Joe. She knows his brand of crazy. She's lived with it.

And this is what makes Mad Mad: Fury Road so amazing to watch. Furiosa is pissed. The Wives are fed up. Their anger, not Max's, provides the emotional center for the film. Their decisions, not his, provide the action. It's shocking that this is shocking, but telling the stories of female victims who refuse to live inside their victimhood is just not how action movies usually go. We get plucky side characters, or romantic love interests, or, if we're in our forties, the villainess role. But to be the King Leonidas, the John McClane, the Snake Plisken? To be the ass-kicker? To be the whole point? That is fresh.

While drama is slowly ceding territory to women's stories, especially on TV, and comedy is beginning to take women seriously, this is one of the few action stories where the estrogen matters as much as the testosterone. I was wrong about not wanting to see Fury Road. I want to see more movies like it.