I live, I die, I live again!
– Nux, War Boy and probable QAnon acolyte
Mad Max: Fury Road has technical proficiency and aerodynamic storytelling but as with any success there’s more than a dash of luck that made it so instantly beloved. George Miller’s belated grease ‘n guns magnum opus benefits from fortuitous timing that can only partly be credited to an ear for the zeitgeist. Fury Road streamlines, but doesn’t significantly depart from, the formula of the previous Mad Max entries. The film had been in various stages of development for the previous two decades but landed fortuitously in 2015, a year with its frustrations but without the crystallization of those issues that would come in 2016. A single year later a film with a funny-haired demagogue and gross sons attempting to prolong the patriarchy would seem eye-rollingly didactic. Instead, Immorten Joe is the original and life the imitation. And the world would madden to match Max.
There’s a scene I recall and quote with disturbing frequency, including at the top of this post, where Max is chained to the car driven by one of Joe’s fanatic War Boys. Nux decides his mission has become of the suicide variety, and Max watches through the back windshield in horror as he floods the moving vehicle with fuel and prepares to light a flare. Camera pushes in on Max, wearing an iron muzzle and an expression of incredulity, panic and anger. This is me reading the news every morning, also wearing a compulsory mask for the protection of others, strapped to some fool hellbent on destroying the both of us in the name of a cause I find ludicrous.
Max Rockatansky has always been dragged into the action: first he’s activated out of dormancy by the murder of his family, then he drags his feet before finally aiding a beleaguered compound, and later very reluctantly leaves a safe colony to help a group of children. Max was reticent before; Fury Road finds him openly hostile to involvement. The movie begins with him literally hunted down and dragged into the story. He doesn’t join the chase, he’s lashed to somebody else’s car and driven into it.
The 80s and 90s gave us decisive men of action, arming Arnold Schwarzenegger with machine guns and quips, retooling Rambo into a chiseled force of nature. The superhero-heavy 2000s marked the return of heroes in the style of Westerns, righteous arbiters of justice displaying their allegiance to the Right Way in their costuming. They might temporarily grow weary of their responsibility but you can depend on them to pick their costumes out of the garbage and face the fight. Max has no such desire. He’s he hero of the besieged current era, beset by fanatics on all sides with his personal information extracted and displayed, the easier to be sorted into their economy. That part may be hyperbole – Amazon isn’t physically tattooing “searched for books on toilet flange repair” on my back yet – but the echoing string of mantras at the disposal of the War Boys, their salivating devotion to ideas beyond my understanding, the constant imploring to “Witness Me!,” these things feel less exaggerated.
The Refusal of the Call is a staple of action movie but rarely does the refusal extend all the way to the final setpiece. Having survived through luck as often as resourcefulness, Max makes it to the other end of the road. Then, in his first decision not motivated by a desire to immediately leave the movie, advises returning the way they came, straight past their adversaries. This is a very satisfying move dramatically, maybe one that foretells the next stage in the irl cycle. The most heartening thing to see the past few months has been demonstrators willing to face conflict head-on and do the work to plant a better future. I don’t know what (re-)taking that road looks like yet, but at least it’s a challenge to Max’s grumbly assertion that “hope is a mistake.”
So for now I hang on for this crazy, involuntary ride. If I step outside my bubble, I can imagine people conjuring scenarios where I’m the one with crazy notions running us straight into a storm. Maybe none of us feel like we’re the ones at the wheel.