The Sanity of Gender in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’
by Gareth Sénèque
We are fifteen minutes into our IMAX session of Mad Max: Fury Road. On the screen I see a car that has taken flight. It rotates slowly, passengers in orbit, all awaiting gravity’s claim. A sandstorm reflects flames that are everywhere, half the scene is fire. I am very still, and can hear only a wall of sound measured in kilowatts.
I am realising that despite pushing nearly every cinematic envelope, the film will not, can not, live up to my expectations. I’ve read too many 140-character reviews, too many variations on “My retinas, they are burning!”. I am still just a guy in a cinema, watching a movie. It will end and I will leave and eat and sleep and go to work tomorrow.
But as soon as this feeling passes, as soon as I internalise its message, the scenes start to occupy my mind, taking their place, expanding the empire of their ambition. The remaining hour and a half just vanishes and I am left with a sense of total fulfilment and no desire to write about the experience at all. But I cannot stop thinking about Imperator Furiosa. She has quickly become her own template, her own model, a new default. I begin to wonder whether I’ve witnessed a moment of significant cultural change where, afterwards, the time before starts to feel just a little bit, well, primitive.
What exactly is this change? In part it expresses itself as a new economics of filmmaking. Put simply, Fury Road does a more complete job of representing reality than any film of its kind before it. Women are critical to the story and are thus more completely reflected in what they say and what they do. A wider audience can relate, can communicate with the characters, and this makes the film a more effective, inclusive piece of art. Usually to widen appeal you have to sacrifice depth, but here the opposite is true. And this representation also cuts across stereotypes of action’s plot and structure in which female characters are things fought over, rare meat for a victor chasing spoils.
We can perhaps now look forward to a time where films are not divided in weak and artificial ways, where films are not just empty action or florid romance, where ray guns and sunsets are mere props of an old narrative apparatus. The world is a big place, not just because of all the light and space but also because of every tilt and pivot made in relation to something or someone else. Films that fail to fully account for the complexity of these events as well as for the lives of their characters will feel less real, less profound,
There are many far more qualified than I to offer a serious, historical take on gender and its expression in Fury Road. All I’m really trying to say here is how normal the characterisations in the film felt, and how this lent the film plausibility, even though the world outside our windows is not yet post-apocalyptic. Everything is just as it should have always been. Furiosa was not signposted, was not given the spandex and high-kicks that usually accompany ‘heroine’. She did not feel like the result of a search-and-replace of “He” with “She”. Her only one-liner was delivered with such believable venom that ripping out a chunk of Immortan Joe’s face was simply the next logical step in a series of actions that were Furiosa.
She and Max shared an entire relationship communicating with little but their eyes. And this made sense because in an apocalyptic wasteland who has time for small talk. Her quest was noble, uncomplicated. It reflected what we might expect the concerns of someone like herself to be. If a woman were abducted, bred, participated in a regime of terror, she’d hatch a plot, and given the resources available, it would probably look like this. She’s not simply good or bad, dainty maiden or rogue hazard. She is a victim but also, by her own admission, someone in need of redemption.
In a world where everyone is prey, having one arm seems a particularly cruel affliction. And no doubt the exact story of how Furiosa lost it would be gory, ‘property’ punished for some minor transgression. But when we see her at her most reduced, after she has slipped off the metal claw and is on her knees in the sand, she doesn’t tap out. She gets up, turns around, and goes back to the hell she escaped. Max tells us not to hope lest we go insane, and yet here hope is Furiosa’s defense against madness. Hope (and its pursuit) prevents total breakdown, the belief that there is a ‘we’ and that it can be saved. This stands in almost utopian contrast to Max’s solitary efforts, themselves the product of trauma he could not avoid.
The other women’s stories each have their own scope. The young, with their idealism shakily intact, and the old, armed pragmatic dreamers until the very end. Each intervening in the narrative at will, directing the course of events. They also sustain an independence of spirit that doesn’t complicate their being with others. This reflects an essential trait of the best women I know. And suddenly it seems normal to have this properly reflected in our cinema. Indeed, when a character is presented as not a whole person but more an automaton or plot device the film feels less real, less plausible. The film might aim to represent the whole of something but parts are left skeletal, the inner-workings of narrative exposed, reminding us that the story is just a machine someone has built.
So while the scale of the film blows out incredibly and its just chase after chase and everything explodes, you have everyone participating, simple behavior and individual choices becoming complex events, and whenever this behavior shows up in the part of the story we see (as the viewer) it just feels normal and makes sense because it reflects how the world comes to be. And thus The Splendid Angharad, played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, uses her pregnancy and favoured status to protect Furiosa’s war rig, only to slip on her own blood and die under Joe’s wheels. Because in life, everyone’s playing for stakes.
With each character being so richly drawn, the movie feels dense even with a relative lack of dialogue. The film exploits the grandeur it creates by compressing so much meaning into the images that you feel the story to be chained to the action throughout. Recall the blood tube, a thin length of plastic held and protected by links of metal. Thus the momentum you feel as the film rolls out onto the screen is part actual chase, part explosion of meaning. Your eyes and ears take care of their inputs, while your memory unpacks each moment of a character’s appearance. It’s the stimulation of sense as well as mind, simultaneously, something that is very difficult to do in a piece of grand, commercial art. This is why the experience of watching this film can be so overwhelming. The dial inside your head is pushed as close to 100% as the medium allows.
And all the while Max is muttering away, trying to keep out of trouble. It seemed that Tom Hardy took took the lesson of Bane’s vicious, frenzied, 1.25x playback method of fighting and applied it to this role. It is instructive, then, that Furiosa kept up. In their initial meeting, she was literally fighting for her life, and that’s what fighting for your life would look like. In another scene that defines very much how Max is presented to us, he leaves the war rig, comes back bloody but carrying guns/ammo. “It’s not his blood”. This glamourless stoicism has him described as ‘reliable’ by Furiosa. In a world this broken, ‘reliable’ is about as valuable a compliment as you might hope for. It makes sense.
So this is a film that has succeeded in crossing another kind of uncanny valley. It has taken us to higher ground by raising the stakes on character, motivation, and plausibility. Humans are wired to sniff out fakes, and films that offer incomplete representations will always feel like something less when compared to Fury Road. The old methods of relieving cinemagoers of their $$ will not be as effective because people will expect more. Another justification for limited, formulaic filmmaking falls away if your audience no longer engaged.
And so in this vision of a future we are all human, as we should be. Sometimes we align in our struggles. The quote from The First History of Man in the closing credits asks if there is a home for those of us who’d better ourselves, somewhere other than ‘wasteland’.
Maybe, but it is inevitable that we will have to work together to find it.