George Miller’s post-apocalyptic series is just as much about learning to communicate as it is learning to survive in the desert wastes.
An engine revs. Someone or something breathes heavily. An unseen narrator begins to speak. “My name is Max. My world is fire, and blood.” He sounds deeply weary, broken even. Beneath his soliloquy, a radio crackles to life. There are screams and gunshots. A second man’s voice, this one anonymous and enraged, yells “Why are you hurting these people?!” The opening credits roll. Max’s (Tom Hardy) haunted narration and a patchwork quilt of other voices lay out the fall of the world and the birth of the Wasteland. So begins Mad Max: Fury Road.
Fury Road turns five years old this week, and in a lot of ways it feels like western blockbuster cinema is still working to catch up to the work director/co-writer George Miller and his creative collaborators did with it. It is a gloriously rich text on every level. The care and craft put into its automotive armada – each member of which tells its own story, from the last of the V8 Interceptors to the heroic, hard-traveling War Rig to the nefarious Gigahorse.
The complex and steadily evolving relationship between Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and the five Wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton) she is helping escape from her former boss – the merciless warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).
Plus, of course, the action. Oh, the action.
Whether on foot or behind wheels, it is a gorgeous ballet of destruction, a deeply personal high-speed war not only for survival, but for the soul of the Wasteland. And then there’s the language. While Fury Road is an action-forward film, built first and foremost on the hows and whys of what’s happening, its dialogue is multifaceted and fascinating.
Indeed, language has been an important part of the series’ storytelling since the word go. All the way back in the first Mad Max, the Toecutter’s (Keays-Byrne) sinister gang have a cadence and slang all their own.
Mad Max 2 pushes this further. The world has fallen, but life as it once was remains within living memory. The nefarious Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) has his Toadie (Max Phipps) bloviate about his greatness, resurrecting the specters of pre-apocalypse power players as “the Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!”
Beyond Thunderdome delves further still into language, in the catchy slogans Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) uses to rule Bartertown and the language of the feral kids Max (Mel Gibson) meets in the picture’s back half, pieced together from memory and salvage.
Fury Road builds on its predecessors’ work. Immortan Joe has dedicated his entire kingdom to glorifying himself. He’s kitbashed a cult together from Norse mythology, Christianity, car culture and the worn-down remains of consumerism. Consider the big speech he gives during his first appearance in the film. Every word is geared towards re-affirming not only Joe’s might but his ownership of the Citadel, everyone and everything within it. He is the Citadel’s messiah, the only man capable of protecting its inhabitants from the oblivion of the wasteland.
Simultaneously, he is a businessman. His trading agreements with Gastown and the Bullet Farm are highly ritualized, but at the end of the day, they’re about the exchange of goods. If Joe wasn’t a bloodthirsty post-apocalyptic warlord, he’d be a pretty savvy marketing executive. He isn’t just trading water and breast milk, he’s trading “Aqua-Cola” and “Mother’s Milk.” And, given a line that will come up momentarily, he’s perfectly happy to engage in some light copyright infringement. After all, it’s hard to get sued when the company you’re stealing from has been reduced to radioactive rubble.
Joe’s language seeps into the minds of his followers, and for many of them it is their only tool for communication. This is best demonstrated by the arc of a well-meaning, big-hearted War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Nux begins Fury Road giddy, enthusiastic and determined to prove worthy of the love he believes the Immortan has for him. The movie demolishes this illusion, leaving Nux a confused, self-loathing wreck.
When Keough’s Capable discovers him at the rear of the War Rig, the conversation they have triggers a sea change in the War Boy’s perception of the world. Nux bemoans his failures and grieves for the heroic death he believes has lost his shot at obtaining. “I should be walking with the Immorta,” he says. “McFeasting with the heroes of all time.” Even having had his image of Joe the benevolent god/father shattered, Nux’s world and words are still shaped by the warlord’s indoctrination.
This holds true all the way through to his death. Nux’s last words are “Witness me.” In the War Boy cult, this is said by a War Boy who wants their glorious death to be remembered. For Nux, it is more of an acknowledgment. He knows that he is going to die crashing the War Rig and accepts it – protecting the people he cares for is worth paying with his life. And War Boy speak is what he knows, so it’s what he uses. In the process, he transforms a sinister cultist’s cry into a heroic credo.
Joe’s enemies – Max, Furiosa, the Wives and the tribe of warrior women called the Vuvalini, are far more plainspoken. Where Joe and his followers wield grandiose language as a weapon and a means of control, Max and company say what they mean and mean what they say.
Consider Max’s big (by his admittedly taciturn standards) speech to Furiosa before the final act. Max, addled and traumatized though he is, lays out his plan and the reasons that he is proposing it clearly and cleanly. He trusts Furiosa, his peer, to make the call. It is not easy for Max to reach out to someone else, or even to speak as much as he does during this sequence. But he powers on through, driven by his re-awakened compassion.
Mad Max Fury Road’s language is precise. It contains layers of meaning, both in-story and out. The care with which it is crafted and performed is clear, and the results speak for themselves. It’s one of the many exemplary pieces of filmmaking that weave together to make Fury Road an unforgettable film.