If you closely followed my series on the best picture nominees you’ll notice that I did not include Mad Max: Fury Road in my reviews. It has nothing to do with running out of time and whoever told you that is a LIAR. I was simply saving it because I felt a re view was not the format in which I wanted to present this incredible film.
Here’s my review of Mad Max: Fury Road – It’s fucking amazing.
Now here’s a little more in depth of a look:
Um, I think it goes without saying there are some major major spoilers in this- but if you haven’t seen this movie yet just stop reading and go watch it first.
I don’t pretend to be an expert of feminist film criticism but I dabble. AM I MANSPLAINING? I JUST WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THIS MOVIE. I had a great professor in university who introduced me to the idea of feminist film criticism and Fury Road seemed the perfect test subject for a feminist film review. How and why was this film so successful? More importantly – why does it feel so different? Why were people so upset about it? When I first began looking at this film as a piece of feminist manifesto I had to ask myself these questions. People were genuinely pretty upset about this movie saying that it “tricked” them into seeing an action movie with chicks in it. They were upset that the women in the film weren’t more sexually exploited or active, which is pretty upsetting actually. It’s ironic that their cries of indignation are what drew a lot of people to see this film and drew me to understand why the film is subversive.
Let’s start with the basics, and specifically why the film sets itself up as an action thriller. I’ll be honest- when the trailer for this film first came out I had no interest in seeing it. This is because it looked like every other action blockbuster. Sure, I’d seen the old Max Max films in the past and really liked them (Road Warrior is pretty unstoppable), but I rolled my eyes and thought George Miller had copped out to make some more money on an old cash cow. How little faith I had in George Miller! Shame on past-Spencer for dismissing his genius so quickly!
Miller established Fury Road as an action film, and it is. What is so remarkable is that Miller normalized the process. He treated it like any other action film – WHICH IS WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN. This is what makes the film so subversive, Miller didn’t sell this film as the “feminist film of the summer” nor should he have. He treated it like an action film. It has all the fixin’s of an action film. It’s part of a large action film series with a huge fan base. It has explosions and car chases and guns and violence. Tom Hardy is the diggity dang title character for goodness sake and that guy screams action movies (I’m looking at you This Means War). This is not to say that Miller accidentally stumbled upon a subversive film. He knew what he was doing.
Now, before I get going too far into this piece I’d like to say something that I learned in school that still sticks with me which is: it actually doesn’t matter what the author was intending or not intending, it is our right as consumers and viewers and critics and scholars to find our own meaning. We are welcome to extrapolate or connect from our own world views- that is the beauty and downfall of art. So, if I’m making a claim, for example “the war boys are physical embodiments of Immortan Joe’s sperm” you welcome to say “there’s no way that George Miller was thinking that!” but I’m just as entitled to say “I don’t care- that’s what I see and here’s why it could be true”.
So, we’ve established that Fury Road fits the cliché action genre. It sets itself up as a high-octane movie with all the accoutrements of what we’ve come expect from a summer blockbuster. Thus, it also draws a large box office with large audiences. This was perhaps the most successful tactic – to encourage a large audience. I’ve seen plenty of female led films, but few that are a true summer blockbuster with massive box office draw (Sorry Ghostbusters). So let’s put that in our back pockets and move on to the actual feminist discussion of the film.
We begin with the gross patriarchal society that the film sets up immediately. The world is in ruin, roving bands of marauders and mercenaries run rampant and those that are not independents work for one of three tyrannical cities. Immortan Joe and his citadel of War Boys, The Bullet Farmer who comes from, you guessed it, The Bullet Farm, and The People Eater from Gas Town. Each of these disgusting patriarchal figures represents the current system in place in post-apocalyptic Australia. Immortan Joe has captured and holds women prisoner. He has woman chained to the wall and kept pregnant to (presumably?) produce warboys, but more specifically they are used to make milk. Gross right? Well, it is one of the first images we have to patriarchal oppression in the film. Joe has taken an act so deeply connected with motherhood (the giving of milk from the breast) and capitalized on it. He is physically captured the milk, and thus instills his rule on womanhood as a whole. He also keeps five women kept in his quarters as his wives, who he uses to produce perfect male heirs. This is important for two reasons. One, it again establishes Joe’s dominance over women and specifically their right to reproduce. He has oppressed their right to choose motherhood. Furthermore he is looking for strong, healthy MALE heirs. He has a couple of sons, one of which is a hyper intelligent, physically disabled watchdog who is certainly not the son that Immortan Joe wanted to have. The other son is a giant, muscular, physically perfect son named Rictus. RICTUS. Now the dictionary definition for Rictus is “a forced smile”, but if you’re telling me the first thing you didn’t think of with the name Rictus is an erect penis then looks like we’ve got a liar on our hands. So Immortan Joe, and his son Penis and his other son Spyglass (Corpus) are all part of a larger whole of male oppression. Immortan Joe also has an army of little white guys who run around and do his bidding – oppressing everywhere they go. They sit on these big poles and will sacrifice themselves for their larger power. This MIGHT be a stretch and maybe isn’t what George Miller was thinking- but I’m content to say those little dudes were physical manifestations for sperm.
The Bullet Farmer couldn’t be more phallic if he tried. He’s the keeper of the guns and the bullets (classic phallic images) and draws his power from selling his little penis’s to the other two. The People Eater, the gross giant man who’s pieced nipples peak through his cut up shirt, is perhaps more a commentary on capitalism but he has boob-shaped cuff links and that is enough women-owning imagery for me. So we have these three gross dudes and their gross Penis sons and their sperm running around and for what? This is George Miller introducing us to the disgusting patriarchy-gone-mad world that is Mad Max: Fury Road. The world is in ruin, the water and the women are being controlled and almost nobody is happy or healthy. The world under these DICKtators (yeah I said it) is a ruined world.
Okay, so the world is ruined and run by a bunch of gross dudes – and herein lays the crux of the film – a subversive female force. We begin with the wives. Joe’s five wives are incredibly beautiful females forced to reproduce (gross) with Joe against their will to give him beautiful healthy boys. The women are literally called “breeders” at many points in the film. These women are all unique and complicated and unlike many action films that might paint all women with one or another brush (kick-ass altruistic but ultimately love struck good guy and/or castrating evil women who makes it her main mission to emasculate all protagonists) Mad Max works really hard to make sure that each character is different. They have different motivations, they have different personalities, and they all want different things. This creates a dynamic of difference and yet of camaraderie. Let’s look at some of the ways this group of women becomes a subversive force. First, and perhaps most noticeable, the women write “We are not things” on the wall of their cell and say it to each other over and over again. They are rejecting patriarchal oppression by literally writing it on the wall. (Take THAT Sam Smith, god that song sucked, I mean Adele must have just been laughing at home with her Oscar for Skyfall). They cut off their chastity belts and drive out into the desert. Furthermore, they represent a new generation of females unwilling to conform to the restrictions placed on them. They are capable (I’m not kidding, one of them literally has the name CAPABLE), and complex and invested in the world. This does two things. One, it sets a new precedent for female characters in action films and specifically how they are portrayed/treated. Second, it shows hope for a new, equal, world- not just in the film but also outside of it.
The only successful society in the Mad Max: Fury Road universe is that of the old biker ladies. What are they called? Oh yeah – they’re called the Vuvalini. Amazing. They have a society based on respect and aren’t afraid to be capable with guns (gimme a P, gimme an H, gimme a phallic imagery). Once again, this sets a precedent for future film, especially in the portrayal of females over the age of 50. They are also called the Many Mothers, and are the keeper of seeds which ties them into a larger environmental narrative. Women are seen as life bringers to the arid wasteland.
Miller creates this beautiful idea of legacy and lineage. Where the patriarchal figures focus on male heirs and destroying imperfections the matriarchal figures foster growth and change. They are hopeful for a new generation and are happy to fight for a better future. It is no coincidence that they return to the citadel to topple the gross patriarchy at home instead of running away.
When they return to the citadel there is an incredible shot of the women who were previously being kept as cows pull the level and release the water. The area will be fertile again because the women pour the life bringing water onto the masses. This is where the idea of eco-feminist criticism comes into play. The females throughout the entire film are associated with fresh water and growth. My favourite shot in the film is when Splendid goes to give Max water from the War Rig and there is a close up of the water spilling from the hose next to her pregnant belly. It’s a longer shot than normal and is a perfect representation of the fertility and growth brought by the female characters in this film. The many mothers are the keepers of the seeds and the once contained growth in the citadel can be released and relinquished once the gross technology/industry-based patriarchy is toppled. Not to say that the oppression of nature is the same as the oppression of females but the forces, at least in this film, that oppress one also oppress the other. It is a deeply complex look at how we treat women and nature. This film is hyper critical of our deeply oppressive views of both.
Okay, last thing and then I’ll wrap it up. I’ve purposely been avoiding perhaps the most subversive part of this film so I could discuss it now- and that is Furiosa. Imperator Furiosa is a shining example of how women in action films should be treated. She is established as a capable, hard and intelligent person in power. Not in spite of or because she’s a women, but simply because she is a kick-ass character. There’s never a scene where anyone goes “Wow! She sure is badass… for a woman” (see The Avengers, any Robert Langdon Movie, any James Bond Movie, Star Wars, Edge of Tomorrow for examples of this). She is treated as an equal. She is Tom Hardy’s counterpart and they are treated as plutonic, non-sexualized partners. They realize the positive qualities in each other and work as a team. Furiosa is even the character to defeat Immortan Joe. What worked in the favour of subversion is that Charlize Theron plays Furiosa. Theron is often seen as a sex symbol and is arguably one of the most beautiful actresses working right now (I say right now because no one will ever be more beautiful than Lauren Bacall). Theron is often cast in roles that exploit her looks but her character in Fury Road wears a non-sexualized outfit. Her breasts and tied down, she doesn’t fall for (barf) Max, and she is also a champion for amputees everywhere- fighting capably with or without her metal prosthetic. There is a great moment where Max cannot aptly fire the rifle at the bullet farmer (let’s keep those phallic images coming!) so Furiosa fires for him. This is one of my favourite moments. In Freudian film theory the eyes are the balls of the face and the removal or destruction of a man’s eyes is usually associated with the castration of this male. So Furiosa deftly uses a phallic image and then blows the Bullet Farmers eyes away. She castrates him with a phallic image and for me that is the crux of her subversion.
Furiosa accepts help from Max and accepts his help without the preemption that it might be sexual. He does the same to her. This is not a “wow, we sure do hate each other now but you in the audience can tell we’re gonna have sex later” situation, this is purely a partnership between two capable PEOPLE.
This is not to say that female characters in the film cannot be sexual, a trait they are totally entitled to. Capable falls in love with Nux and is no less capable because of it. Nux saves them all because of his love for her but he does not NEED to save her. In fact none of the women NEED saving. I recently watched the new Magnificent Seven movie and the ONLY female character in that film literally asks SEVEN DUDES WHO SHE DOESN’T KNOW to save her. Mad Max does not rely on this trope. In fact, it doesn’t bring up any of this. It’s almost like Miller refused to use cheap misogynist tropes on purpose. It’s almost like he just created complex characters and didn’t worry about whether or not they were female.
Isn’t that the point of all of this? To normalize competent, complex, interesting female characters in a genre that so pervades our big screens. I would argue that Mad Max doesn’t create a new road for feminist film but instead paves the old one – a road fraught with fury and false masculinity and grossly over-sexualized females – into something that can be driven upon by both male and female led films in the future.