You realize something around the 30-minute mark of Mad Max: Fury Road—this movie is not going to stop. Max is stowing away on an oil tanker driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is absconding with the five slave brides of her keeper, Immortan Joe. Joe—who looks like the military dictator of a steampunk colony—gives chase with three “war parties” of weaponized vehicles. We make pit stops, for talk and for gas. But the rest of the movie is a perpetual death race.
George Miller, whose directed all four Max movies, isn’t seeking pleasure in speed. Instead he’s looking for art in destruction. The worlds he creates for these films—sand-covered dystopias ruled by burly men rocking repurposed BDSM gear—border on the the nightmarish. Then the brutal physicality of the car crashes push us right over that border.
Great attention is paid to gravitational details: The arrhythmic toppling of vehicles, or the inelegant crumpling of a weak body under moving wheels. What emerges from this wreckage is an orgiastic opera—a movie defined not by narrative, but by flame-seared images of asphyxiating landscape, and by the thundering sounds of shook metal.
The sheer bravado of these action sequences bring to mind many past masters of visual art. In the way Max is mythologized—walking out of the dust, as if from nowhere, with no name attached—there is Sergio Leone. In the strange objects rising in and flopping out of sand dunes, we detect Dali. And in the acrobatic audacity of the stunts—Miller attaches poles to cars, and then men to the top of those poles, leaving them stranded to swing like cats on a tree branch—there’s even a bit of Buster Keaton.
All that leaves little room for smalltalk. Hardy speaks a small handful of sentences, and his performance is almost entirely gestural—you learn about him only in the rare moments when his mood makes itself known through smirks and grimaces hidden in his sand-caked face. That coalesces with the constant action nicely: This is a film you can follow entirely with your eyes. Its as purely visual as a work of silent cinema, and as entrancing as a great work of art. Your intellect shutters, your subconscious submits to sensory assault.
There is one verbal motif: The cry of Who killed the world? is shouted loudly by the film’s six heroines. The answer goes unacknowledged, but it’s obvious—men did. And so Max plays sidekick to those six while they work to undo the patriarchal values that drove humanity into environmental ruin. It’s fair to scoff at progressive politics when they’re buried within a film this unashamedly and unpretentiously violent. But by the end, everything clicks together. We see a world in need of tearing down. Miller finds great beauty doing exactly that.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. NOW PLAYING EVERYWHERE. RATED R.