There are no declarations of love, or even declarations of fondness. There’s no sex, no smooching, and not even any flirting. They don’t have a cute first meeting, and they don’t stay together; their relationship begins with both throwing punches, and ends when they wordlessly part ways.
But somehow, Mad Max: Fury Road is the most profoundly and unabashedly romantic film to hit theatres in a long, long time. It draws its power from the authenticity of its protagonists, and from an inspired psychology that engages the heartbreaking isolation and vulnerability of its 21st century audience. It doesn’t romanticize romance or sexualize sexuality – it humanizes them, and in so doing it strikes much deeper than the usual conventions of love in film.
It’s a testament to Fury Road’s depth and ambition that all of this is so easy to miss. Mad Max movies are action movies, and this is an extraordinary action movie — an extraordinary, frenetic, and stunning action movie, hurtling from explosive launch to explosive end with the precision and propulsion of a missile. Setpieces, almost all variations on car chases, unfold with endless innovation and harrowing intensity; the visuals are gripping and meticulously painted in the vivid, bizarre tones characteristic of the series. On those merits alone, Fury Road reaches pinnacles other films rarely even aspire to, much less approach.
But look past the sandstorm tornados, the flying motorcycles and the pillars of fire. Here is Max, the loner, the traumatized survivor, doomed to endless, frantic flight in a world that only sees him as a bag of blood. He isn’t the brooding hero of a melodramatic tragedy, stricken by anger, or grief, or even despair – he’s the broken spirit of clinical depression, a portrait of apathy, acedia and exhaustion. He can’t be bothered to hold a grudge against captors who tried to bleed him to death; he can barely bring himself to say a word through the entire movie.
There is Max, and then there is Furiosa — who doesn’t have the luxury of depression. When we meet her, she’s already carrying out a dangerous scheme to rescue five women enslaved as an unwilling harem; by the end of the film she hopes to save what remains of her familial tribe, overthrow a tyranny, and restore at least the seed of civilization. So much depends on her, even as she is beset at every moment by an army intent on killing her; so often in the film, her only hope is to come up with desperate plans, and then to carry them out through sheer force of will.
So Fury Road becomes a story about two people living out Hamlet’s famous dilemma: Max has learned to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, while Furiosa has decided to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them. And as with Hamlet, these struggles have alienated our heroes from the rest of the world, and forced them to turn inward. Max doesn’t trust Furiosa, and spends much of the film’s first act holding a gun on her; Furiosa doesn’t trust Max, and has rigged her vehicle with hidden weapons and an elaborate kill switch. Max tries to escape by himself for the same reason that Furiosa is searching for her family: danger and tragedy have isolated both of them. He’s resigned to his loneliness; she still hopes to escape it.
Their plight will have particular resonance with the modern viewer. As Erich Fromm put it, “Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow man, and from nature…everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome.” Like Max, we’ve lost our identity — as he loses his in the film’s opening moments – and feel stamped with the identical brand of powerful forces that essentially own us. Like Furiosa, we search for community, and only find deserts.
But amid their desperate escape from their pursuers, the unexpected happens: Max and Furiosa are forced to rely on each other. Here is where Fury Road earns its distinction from other films. So often in love stories, circumstance provides an opportunity to fall in love – but it’s some miracle of personal chemistry and fateful alignment of stars that actually makes it happen, and the story mainly dwells on those mystical vicissitudes of infatuation. In Fury Road, circumstance dictates their relationship almost every step of the way, leaving Max and Furiosa with only one choice: whether or not to trust each other.
That narrative frame creates a subtle but powerful romance where only the the most essential psychology is ever visible. When, in one critical scene, Furiosa asks Max his name, the question seems trivial; she simply needs to know how to signal him during her plan to escape from a narrow canyon. When he refuses to give it to her, that just seems like exactly how you would expect Max to respond. But the moment is pregnant with meaning, and in the end, when he finally tells her his name, it’s clear that something important has changed.
Such moments emerge periodically throughout the film, and then vanish back into the din and chaos of post-apocalyptic insanity. Now they find themselves for the first time in exhillerating alliance, shooting down bomb dropping motorcycles from the cab of a racing truck. Now he pauses uncertainly when he leaves her before what could be a suicide mission, confused that someone would notice if he died. And now Max, in his own broken way, tries to talk Furiosa out of her own suicide mission: “You know hope is a mistake.”
But hope, he decides, is not a mistake. In the film’s pivotal scene, Max changes his mind; he returns to Furiosa, and lays out a plan to take up arms against their sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.
He does not stay with her forever. Some critics have voiced reservations about the film’s end, when Max walks away from Furiosa without a word; on the surface, it seems to undercut the romance, which was all about them coming together. But this misses the point. One could easily guess, had Max remained, that he had ulterior motives for wanting to stay as a conquering hero at the world’s last oasis. And one can easily guess at all kinds of reasons for feeling like he needed to go.
But as he disappears into the crowd, the film lets us be certain about one thing: he didn’t help to take back Joe’s Citadel for himself. He did it for her – and in his escape from isolation, he has changed.
Photo courtesy Warner Bros. This piece originally published by Carl Beijer.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.