Mad Max: Fury Road is a fantastic film, a stunning vision in X-Pro that is definitely worth the watch. The film is fast paced, visually stunning, and laconic. The acting is superb and overall, the film is a piece of solid cinematic storytelling. In full disclosure, my primary motivation in seeing this film was to find out whether the film was as feminism inflected as critics suggested. While the film confusingly opts to center its story on Imperator Furiosa (played by a butched-up Charlize Theron) in a film ostensibly about the trials and travails of its titular character, “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) I couldn’t help but notice just how profoundly un-feminist the film was. It pits itself decidedly against the dominant cultural narrative of equalism, godlessness, and relentless modernity and firmly in the camp of radical inequality, mysticism, and tradition. Fury Road is an intoxicating mix of religious iconography, deep ecology, and apocalyptica.
*EXTREME SPOILERS AHEAD*
Fury Road returns to the desolate desert in which it was born, to a universe that is even more brutal and unforgiving than the ones preceding it. The nuclear holocaust has come and gone; survival is the only aim. This world, where disfigured hoardes in the valley are counseled against becoming too attached to water lest they come to resent its absence by a disfigured overlord atop a verdant peak as he niggardly doles it out, is indubitably a man’s world. Only the toughest of the tough will survive. Imperator Furiosa drives the war rig and saves the virgin wives, but the men are the real conductors in this universe.
This much becomes clear within 30 minutes of the film when the rig makes a pit stop after a particularly intense chase scene. Max stumbles upon Furiosa and Immortan Joe’s five (supermodel) wives clad in diaphanous white fabrics, cutting off their chastity belts. Max, who is still disoriented from the crash and from having been used as a “blood bag” by the sickly war boy Nux, is initially antagonistic towards the women. Once Nux comes to, eager to return the wives to Joe, Max’s role quickly shifts to that of protector. Max fights off Nux, herds the women back onto the rig, and the set off again towards the mythical “Green Place.” The rig is soon besieged by Joe and his gang and Max finds himself protecting, fighting, and repairing the rig, all while the women cower inside the cab of the rig. Furthermore, it is revealed that Nux has stowed away on the rig. He soon develops an emotional relationship with one of the wives and transitions from antagonist to coven protector.
Ultimately, after a series of chase scenes and intense pyrotechnical feats, the gang arrives at the Green Place, and finds the place barren and populated by a group of leathery crones called the Vuvalini. Even though Furiosa claims to have made the run to the Green Place several times before, she appeared to be unaware of the Green Place’s actual condition. She also learns that her matriarchal clan has been decimated, its members dwindling down to the last. Realizing that the Shangri-la that she intended to deliver the girls to does not exist, Furiosa cooks up an abortive plan involving riding into the desert on motorbikes with 160 days of provisions. Realizing the plan to be nothing short of suicide, Max presents Furiosa with a map outlining a path back to the Citadel, the only semblance of a society that still exists. On the chase back to the Citadel, Furiosa is gravely injured, Nux sacrifices himself to ensure that the women may return to the Citadel safely, and Max provides Furiosa with a blood transfusion. At the movie’s conclusion, Max slips off into the crowd, allowing Furiosa and the wives to return to the Citadel victoriously.
This is no feminist fantasy. This is brutal realism, patriarchy at its finest. While Furiosa is the spitting image of the “strong, independent woman who don’t need no man,” she nevertheless does need a man (several men in fact) to help liberate the wives from Joe. Furiosa is employed by Joe, and her position as right hand woman (heh) is what gave her the latitude to have the audacity to steal his wives from right under his nose. As the action heats up in the desert, it becomes manifestly clear that Furiosa and the wives rely on Max both materially and emotionally. Max is the one who must make the physical and psychic sacrifices to facilitate the women’s freedom. It is Max who ventures into the dark to recover ammunition and returns covered in blood. It is Max who battles off hostiles on top of a moving rig. It is Max in all his taciturn splendor who the women turn to when they are inquieted by a sudden and unexpected turn of events.
This theme deepens once Nux defects to the good side. One of the wives quickly develops a bond with Nux and he quickly develops a sense of responsibility for her well-being. Many a wistful gaze and truncated wave is shared; many a sleepy nuzzle shared in the rig’s cab. Ultimately, Nux literally self-immolates to insure that the wives are ushered to safety, at last obtaining his elusive entry to Valhalla. This is pure chivalry: that a male character would sacrifice himself for the female characters
Analyzing the last third of the film does nothing to dislodge this hypothesis. If anything, it highlights just how patriarchal the world of Fury Road is. The Green Place turns out to be a mirage. The stark reality is that this fabled place was naught but a desert wasteland inhabited by a nomadic band of women vainly attempting to eke out an existence in the barrenness. Their only link to life and civilization is a case of seeds carried around by one of the elders. Thus we see the futility of matriarchy: it created nothing and could sustain nothing. It could not protect the downtrodden. Far from being a powerful and independent force, matriarchy is fundamentally weak and dependent, powerless to offer even a modicum of solace to the oppressed. Furiosa took the wives away from the forces of masculine oppression, signified by Joe and the society of the Citadel only to bring them into the hopeless abyss.
The return to the Citadel is also telling. The Vuvalini understand that they cannot help the wives and were themselves eager to return to the Citadel. The Citadel is the only semblance of civilization remaining, a true oasis in the nuclear desert. The return to the Citadel is the acceptance of the failure of matriarchy and is the tacit recognition that a return to the masculine is the only thing that will preserve life. The Return to the Citadel is the characters prostrating themselves before the supremacy of masculinity and its ability to synthesize life out of the void, to create civilization out of nothingness. In this world, women are not the equals of men, nor could they be. The harshness of the environment necessitates hierarchy and precludes modernist fantasies of gender equality. Even Max’s blood transfusion to Furiosa is testament to this life giving property of the masculine. The protector of life becomes the resurrector from death in the face of all but certain oblivion. For all its feminist posturing, Fury Road is a paean to masculine virtue that succeeds in its honesty and unforgiving realism.