I like to listen to music while I write, no matter the form. From song lyrics to research papers, it’s normal for me to listen to music to find inspiration and a calm space where I can focus, and I’m sure the same goes for many of you. Because my musical interests are vast, I go all over the place looking for writing inspiration. After watching George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, however, I knew there was just one album that I had to listen to on repeat while writing this review. That album belongs to none other than Chicago-based hardcore act Harm’s Way, and the album of choice was their most recent offering, Rust, which was released earlier this year on Deathwish, Inc.
Why would I listen to this album exclusively, and more importantly, why would I care to tell you all of the music I listen to in the first place? Well, there are a couple of simple explanations that apply to both questions. First of all, those of you who have seen the film and know what it looks like will understand my choice based upon the album’s title alone. Secondly, I chose this album specifically because of the sort of music Harm’s Way has to offer.
From the outside, one might hear the chuggy, down-tuned guitar riffs and overall brutality and think that Harm’s Way is just another brand of meathead tough guy hardcore punk – especially when you see how jacked their vocalist James ‘Hammers’ McPligue is. But when you listen to the album, you discover more than a few industrial metal influences that offer a subtle nuance to each pummeling track, proving they are, musically speaking, above many of their counterparts in the genre. I could give Miller’s film a similar sort of verdict. Wrapped up in the package of a mid-May blockbuster studio release, Mad Max: Fury Road is a delightful action flick with plenty of brawn and brains.
Given the film’s outer appearance, it only seems appropriate to first examine the film’s brawn. First of all, the film looks and feels just as the Harm’s Way album title suggests. The post-apocalyptic landscape featured in Miller’s film exudes rust, a particular sort of decay that almost automatically becomes linked with masculinity because of its industrial connotations – although we will see later in the film why this should not be the case. Almost each frame is dominated by orange, with some browns, reds, and yellows mixed in between, making for an oppressive viewing experience that serves to accentuate ideas of fascism, which will be explored later. One almost half expects to leave the theater covered in sand because of its omnipresence.
Additionally, because this color palette dominates most of the film, the viewer longs for any sort of color that can provide some sort of visual relief. During night scenes, the film’s form of visual respite is to make everything blue, a natural contrast to the colors presented during the day, unless there is some sort of natural lighting. The film finds part of its sense of humor by giving the audience the extremes of both contrasting colors. Presenting both extremes may frequently numb the viewer’s senses, but they further highlight the film’s exterior toughness.
And then there are the action sequences that have had critics and moviegoers alike buzzing. Just like the color palette is taken to the extremes, so are the action set pieces. With frantic pacing, cinematography, and editing, the film finds few moments to slow down and catch its breath from the sheer force of pounding badassery. Characters fight in hand-to-hand combat, people chase each other on scarily tricked out motorcycles, big rigs, and cars turned into monster trucks. Plus, there are more than enough large, fiery explosions to satiate the desires of action film fans. Easily the most awesome aspect, however, is a chained musician, playing a double-neck guitar and laying down riff upon riff, who looks like he came from the set of a Marilyn Manson music video shoot during the earlier days of the shock rocker’s career.
Most noticeable about the sequences, though, is the fact that they’ve been amplified to hyper-speed to a nearly comical degree. The film’s action sequences are fast enough to provide sensory overload without being so fast that the human brain cannot physically process the images. The film marks this as part of its visual style from the outset, as Tom Hardy’s Max attempts to evade of group of corpse-looking men in the opening scene. Because of how absurd the violence often appears, the film seemingly makes fun of this sort of testosterone-fueled action flick, while still lovingly embracing a similar sort of identity. Furthermore, like the film’s color palette, the abundance of artificially quickened violence makes the viewer feel numb by the end, but who really cares when you, and the film itself, are having this much fun?
Now seems time to tackle what exactly makes Fury Road smarter than other films of its ilk. There are two sorts of rhetoric that work in tandem to influence its narrative: feminism and fascism. A lot has been said recently about the film’s surprisingly progressive stance when it comes to its female characters standing in the midst of a male-dominant landscape and film genre. The film is chock-full of strong, capable female protagonists who assert themselves well against an oppressive regime that wishes to subjugate them to forced breeding and breast-milk extraction, among other atrocities against human nature.
Such strength exhibited by the female protagonists in Miller’s film are unseen practically anywhere else, especially in action films that prefer to focus on burly, but troubled men who use violence as an exercise of working through previous trauma. Women use violence as well as non-violent gestures of resistance for these means, as well, but how could one not in such a dog-eat-dog environment? The film places men and women on an equal, physical playing field, something that is certainly refreshing for audiences. Furthermore, it was surprising to see Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a strong leader in the regime commanding an incredibly phallic big rig, as the plot’s main focus. As one of the film’s primary protagonists, it would have seemed a forgone conclusion that the film would devote more than enough time to her character. The film, however, often makes her more prominent than its title character, which is a welcome change of pace.
There is, however, one problem I did have with putting so much focus on Furiosa. While there is plenty of focus placed upon Tom Hardy’s Max, we never really see him develop like we do Furiosa. From the beginning of the film, we see that he feels incapable of properly dealing with his own past mistakes, acting out in violence rather than truly working through them, just like many other male action heroes. By the end of the film, there is some sense that he is getting closer to forgiving himself, but overall, he continues to act out through violence. It seems that the film reduces him to the archetypal action hero, which undercuts the film’s feminism. It does so only slightly, however, especially when we consider Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a ‘war boy’ living in Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) regime who must come to terms with the lies he’s been fed in this world.
The film’s narrative is equally influenced by fascist rhetoric, as well. As previously mentioned, this particular post-apocalyptic universe features a dictator and the oppressive regime he rules over the populace. Numerous aspects of this society evoke ideas of a stereotypical fascist regime. There is a cult of leadership surrounding Immortan Joe yet there is an emphasis on the collective rather than the individual, violence is considered purifying, and there is perceived glory in death. Additionally, the film represents its male-oriented totalitarian regime in such a farcical manner. Many of the film’s primitive men do nothing but grunt, yell, create explosions, kill things, spray chrome on their mouth in the name of a glorified death, and worship steering wheels. They spew out hollow propagandistic mantra as if speaking the words makes them proud. Such is the life of one of Immortan Joe’s ‘warborn.’
The rhetoric of physical superiority and the concept of the ‘other’ can be seen the appearance of many characters in the film, as well. Many of warriors and laborers, adult and child alike, are dressed in a pure white skin paint that, while making them appear ghost-like, sets them up as a part of this homogenous collective that believes themselves superior. Furiosa completely ‘other’s herself by dressing the top half of her face with black oil, and because Nux never appears as white as the other men, he is automatically ‘othered’ as much as he would have initially denied it. As one can see, Miller’s film has far more intellect than most would have expected an action film of its caliber to possess.
Clocking in at what doesn’t even come close to feeling like 120 minutes, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is, simply put, a gleefully chaotic and energetic action flick that should not be passed off as mindless blockbuster entertainment. It makes you think while giving you some of the most fun you will have in a movie theater all summer. While writing this, I am midway through listening to Rust for the fifth straight time, and while it has yet to wear on me, I would like to listen to something else. And while I do not believe I could watch Fury Road five times in a row without being worn out from it, I certainly wouldn’t mind revisiting it that many times in the right setting.