George Miller, Heavy Metal & the Simplicity of Story

The weekend box office has come in and PITCH PERFFECT made something like $70 million. A pop song singing fest with mass broad appeal, it edged out the weekend’s second place offering by just over $25 mill, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD made a respectable $44 million. But it seems to have created a rift in the fanboy and critics circles. I don’t see how or why it would or should. One is a PG pop song, the other an R rated heavy metal opus, chock full of violence. Of course the pop song is going to sell more date night tickets than the heavy metal act. And being the heavy metal act is not a bad thing at all.

You see, director George Miller is more metal than you. Shit, he’s more metal than metal itself. A single viewing of FURY ROAD is enough to pummel you into concession of my assessment. FURY ROAD is the visual equivalent of the perfect metal album. A note for note masterpiece, perfectly timed in its sequences, each is a ballistic song unto itself. The end result is a surreal ballet of violence that has no parallel in modern Western cinema. Forget about the kinetic impact of THE RAID going forward, after DAREDEVIL, ass kicking in the up close is passé. Allow me to evoke the CGI that allows the FAST & FURIOUS franchise to defy physics before you do. FURY ROAD makes the Vin Diesel vehicle a cartoon in comparison. The bar on action films has been raised, once again, by an innovator of the genre. By breaking FURY ROAD’s story down to the bare bones, Miller has reinvented the genre once again.

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And that’s what makes this such an amazing experience to behold. The simple mindedness of it. Miller has found a way to appeal to today’s attention deficient audiences and tell a compelling tale with three clear acts. As a result, FURY ROAD tells a cohesive story with no plot holes, no bullshit and, most of all, more explosions than Michael Bay has had in his past 5 productions. FURY ROAD also has more story than any of the aforementioned Bay offerings, despite the fact that it’s nothing more than one long chase that goes in one direction and (spoiler!) back the way it came. Along the way shit gets blown up, people die and both heroes and villains find themselves on varying sides of redemption, either receiving or dealing it. Constantly. A simple story, plus complete characters makes for compelling entertainment and FURY ROAD is a classic Campbellian hero’s journey, complete with a trek into the underworld and a rebirth during said portion of the trek. It’s bare bones Hellenic story telling, ripe with visual Easter Eggs and succeeds because of it. With this outline laid, Miller creates a post apocalyptic vision that defies the suspension of disbelief, going over the top to a degree that you can’t help but accept the absurdity and madness of it all. It’s almost as if Miller has laid down tracks on the perfect album, Side A takes us one way, side B goes back again, and never loses its pace.

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The bad guys, under the command of Immortan Joe, form the rhythm section of the movie, figuratively and literally with their thundering bass drums and driving guitar. The antagonists also fill this role in the narrative, as they are the driving force behind the chase itself. Joe’s a sick and poisoned boogeyman with interest only in retrieving his breeding stock of wives. And this is why Immortan Joe works. He’s not a sympathetic villain. In some sense, he’s no different than the killing machine that is Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees. Like them, Joe’s a driven maniac. Immortan Joe heralds the end of the sympathetic bad guys. Too often we waste precious screen time on justifying their motivations, taking precious character development form the protagonists and their wards. The end result with many modern movies has been an inability for the audience to bond with the intended heroes, because they’re less interesting than the bad guys. All too often this is leading to bland or otherwise uninteresting exercises in film.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD features a return to the post apocalyptic adventures of the titular “Mad” Max Rockatansky, after a 3 decade theatrical sabbatical for the character. The creation of George Miller and his late writing partner Byron Kennedy, Max wanders the wasteland of Australia in a search for redemption. Max is Miller’s Elric, a haunted but eternal champion. Max and Elric share many similar traits, primarily in the “dead friends” department. But whereas Stormbringer typically ends up feasting on the souls of Elric’s companions, Max’s friends and family die at the hands of others, and live on only to haunt Max’s soul.

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First played by (the then not so bat shit crazy) Mel Gibson in MAD MAX, THE ROAD WARRIOR and BEYOND THUNDERDOME, the role is now in the safe hands of Tom Hardy. With this passing of the torch in FURY ROAD, the character of Max has now reached a level of iconography on a level similar to James Bond. But whereas Bond’s tux and Walther PPK are signatures of the character, a tattered leather jacket and sawed off shot gun are the dog-eared marks of Max. Hardy is Max in the same manner that Gibson was Max. He motivations in the story are clear. It’s his intent to aid his wards in their quest and hopefully end the nightmares of his past.
But Max isn’t the movie’s primary protagonist. He’s more a window dressing in the story, placed there as a convenient plot MacGuffin to drive the story with his frequent super human feats of heroism and survival. Like FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN, which is a gangster movie that just happens to vampires in it, FURY ROAD isn’t as much a Mad Max movie, as it is a movie with Mad Max in it. This becomes clear as we close the first act.

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Instead, this story is about Imperiator Furiosa, brought to life by Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron. We haven’t had a female action lead this strong since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the ALIEN franchise. It’s her quest, her goals that further drive the story and are the catalyst to all of the death and destruction that rains throughout the film. Ultimately her story is a twist on Homer’s Helen of Troy. Where as Helen launched a thousand ships, Furisoa’s actions launch a thousand vehicles. But it’s not until we meet the Many Mothers that the narrative takes a noticeable turn, giving the story a prevalent feminist sub theme. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a part of the message that drives the narrative, showing the balance between not only good and evil, but male and female, and life and death. Miller has actually snuck in a bit of neo-pagan symbolism in the story with the three faced goddess representation in the female characters. The fundamental archetypes of the triple goddess are there if you look. The Five Wives of Immortan Joe represent the Maiden in their nativity. Furiosa is clearly the aspect of the Matron, guiding her charges to safety. The Many Mothers are the embodiment of the Crone, whom also heralds life and death. This is less feminism than it is just good story telling providing a positive message, albeit hidden behind vast carnage.

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Combined, Max is our lead guitarist and Furiosa our vocalist. Furiosa channels the aggression of Lzzy Hale in her convictions and softness of Amy Lee when required. Hers is the voice of FURY ROAD. Max’s signature compliments her, melding the technical genius of Randy Rhoads and garage band rough of Sean Morgan, getting the job done at any cost. All played out over Immortan Joe’s backbeat with an end result that is familiar, yet new. Is FURY ROAD a modern masterpiece? Perhaps, perhaps not. One thing it isn’t is a pop song. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is pure and unadulterated, in your face heavy metal always in tune with an absence of sour notes, even if it isn’t Pitch Perfect.

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