Fury Road: How Miller Won the West
Even if the fourth instalment in the Mad Max franchise wasn’t the best film of the year, I’d still champion it as the most important. Fortunately, Fury Road is the best movie of the year, which makes my work here a lot easier.
George Miller is the grizzled, ageing gunfighter moseying back into the little frontier town he calls home, decades after having left it. Much has changed over the course of his self-imposed exile, technology has shot a railroad through the heart of the town and the local saloon is now the ward of a new breed of buckaroo, all pistols and pomposity. Each has built a tale of their prowess more impressive than the last, lightning quick hands against insurmountable odds – deadly precision bringing gifts for the Reaper. George listens to these stories, words infused with the immortality of youth, so self assured. Barely has the last arrogant vowel been formed, when these broncos of the new world find themselves sprawled in the dust. Miller holsters his six-shooter, satisfied that the lesson has been learnt.
It is absolutely disarming, how effortlessly Miller wades into this era of Baysplosions and shaky cams, and removes the blindfolds from our eyes. ‘I’m sorry, my children…’ he whispers into our ears. ‘I have forsaken you too long, but here, receive from me my greatest gift. Let it serve you well.’ The most accurate analogy I can think of, is that Miller has essentially made what is the film negative of the modern blockbuster. Where Transformers swerves right, Fury Road goes left. Where Marvel reaches for the stars, Mad Max knows exactly how intimate our relationship with the dust truly is. At this point I’m going to mention just four aspects of recent action films, where the misunderstanding of each leads to banality, and then present my case for why Fury Road is a prime example of how nailing these aspects will always craft a superior movie.
‘Show, don’t tell,’ is the oft repeated mantra that is just as often ignored – how often have we seen top-heavy exposition poison a potentially great film before it’s even had a chance to breathe? Or key moments that should steep the viewer in nail-biting tension ruined by the need to explain character motivations? Secondly, plot. Far too many filmmakers mistake what makes a good story for what makes a good plot, specifically when it comes to the action genre. Thirdly, in order to keep the viewer’s interest after capturing it, action movies need you to invest in the mortality of the characters and in the commitment of the actors to their roles. Vulnerability means believability – for what other purpose was Kryptonite created? Lastly, the greatest action sequences all reveal an innate understanding of restraint and musicality. Slow motion isn’t in and of itself artful, throwing it at every action sequence you produce is tantamount to taking the lid of the salt shaker. The right technique at the right time is what engraves moments like the Moscow car chase from Bourne Supremacy, or watching Ripley emerge in a power loader, indelibly upon our memories.
Fury Road opens with a glorious bit of cinematography that in a single frame manages to convey all the elements needed to follow the story; the harshness of the environment, the demise of any form of dignity in a society that has no room for it, the focus on doing whatever it takes to simply survive. Sure, there is some narration by the protagonist as a voice-over, which more often than not is a mortal movie sin, but in this instance Miller uses it as just another colour on his palette. That narration does crop up in future moments, but the film remains true to the ‘show don’t tell’ approach. What little attention is given to flashbacks are less about establishing Max’s motivations as they are his state of mind. For everyone else, their actions provide enough context as to convey a sufficiently solid narrative foundation while still leaving the viewer curious. You know all you need to know to invest in this rollercoaster ride, anything more would just slow things down. I’m guessing I probably had a few quizzical looks when I mentioned there being a difference between story and plot, surely they’re the same thing?
Without getting overly technical, plot is the causal and logical structure that connects events, while story is the chronological (mostly) sequence of those events. Put another way, the plot is what happens, whereas the story is why and how it happens. How does this translate to the medium of film? Well, how the writer and director choose to implement each often indicates how they see their own creations. Scorsese’s The Departed, whilst containing many thrilling action sequences, has both a complex story and a complex plot. This is a film that wants to entertain, but at its heart is a drama that operates onion-like (because it has layers, Donkey). The Departed wants you to unfold those layers afterwards, wants you to pick up on the character nuances. An analysis of Die Hard on the other hand reveals an incredibly simplistic plot. Why? McTiernan wants to take the viewer on a sensory thrill ride, and the less he has to worry about keeping various plot threads in place, the more he can focus on pacing, as well as those moments in the story that achieve mythic status. An excellent example of how the merging of complexity in plot and story can poison an action film would be the Taken series. The first Taken film had a simple plot; Neeson rescues his daughter and punishes the perps. This allowed the director to focus on the action sequences and to perfect the classic Neeson phonecall moment. But by the time the third Taken film rolls around, the plot is more complex and the film undoubtedly suffers because of it.
A bunch of people drive between two points. That’s essentially the plot of Fury Road; about as simple as it’s possible to get I’d imagine. And with that established, Miller knows it’s all now about how he conveys that journey. This in turn allows the story to evolve in a very oragnic way, in how the characters interact and in their responses to the events that unfold. And Miller gives himself the time to concentrate on the crucial aspect of his film; the pacing. He understands the relentlessness he needs to convey in order to lock people in for the full running time. Turn the dial too far in the wrong direction and he risks either overwhelming the viewer to the point where they switch off, or afford too much breathing room and attention starts to wander. It’s one hell of a tightrope act, and Miller pulls it off to near perfection. How do I quantify this? Simple; how far into the credits does it take for you to be able to stand up? Not because you want to see the end credits scene, or because you need to know the name of that guy you recognise from that series, but because you’re physically incapable of standing. Anything longer than ten seconds is considered a success. I think it took me a full twenty seconds before my brain realised it needed to send blood to my legs. More on pacing in a bit.
Max’s vulnerability is acknowledged within the first ten minutes of the film. As bad-ass as Theron’s Furiosa is, she’s far from invincible. Even supporting characters possessing certain traits that in other films would be a clear indication of their inevitable doom or survival, are in Fury Road highly unpredictable. These aren’t characters who can be on the receiving end of a brutal beating in one scene and show no signs of it twenty minutes later, every instance of violence leaves an ineradicable mark both physically and emotionally. And it certainly helps that every member of the cast was clearly completely committed to the film; the stunt crew in particular should win all the awards for their work. There are moments where I’d imagine the safer route would have been to render CD ragdolls to be hurled around (and in certain sequences there are), but it’s difficult to convey just how visceral your reaction will be when you realise that the body you just witnessed tumbling across the sands like a Nascar wreck is actually a real person. Where Miller truly excels is in the application of practical effects, and how lovingly every frame of action has been constructed. Every moment the camera sweeps back and pans across the insanity, every moment it zooms intimately inward, every movement and every camera angle all have a purpose. Anything less, and the pacing is destroyed.
Yes, a last word on pacing. It’s become rather popular to lob pacing criticisms against movies, the most popular of which is the Pacing Curve grenade – the notion that excellent pacing subscribes to a particular curve on a graph. Fury Road catches that particular grenade, and hurls it back to devastating effect. I’m not saying that peaks and troughs in the tempo of a film isn’t a critical element, but there are exceptions to the rule. We’ve generally come to accept the exceptions when it comes to the more glacial tempos, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch are masters in that area. Heck, contemplate for a moment the kind of film A Space Odyssey might have been had Kubrick followed the ideal Pace Curve? Yeah, I don’t want to think about it either. Fury Road is the exception that lies at the opposite end of that scale.
Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t the perfect movie. Where Theron nails the physicality of Furiosa, instances of her delivery felt somewhat forced. Hardy’s Max, as taciturn as Gibson’s was, perhaps lacks some of the charm Gibson afforded the role, although I personally enjoyed the subtleties of his performance. The aforementioned flashback sequences were jarring in their execution, and a very late attempt at 3D wizardry fell completely flat. But this isn’t an attempt at a review of the film, our resident film buff AG has already delivered his excellent verdict and we are for the most part in agreement. Rather, I’d hope that for those who have seen the film, this might provide an insight into Miller’s directorial decisions, how refreshing his approach is and what sets it apart from much of the paint-by-numbers fodder plaguing the industry. And for those who still haven’t, I’ve left as much as possible unspoiled. This is a film that deserves your attention, and that will in turn earn your respect. Witness!