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Fast and Furiosa: The simplistically complex brilliance of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

| Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Furiosa webSusan Zhu

My Film, Television and Theatre classmates know, I have a propensity to interpret everything I watch as a western (even “Mad Men”). I think I am fascinated by the manner in which westerns use symbols to establish a deep, almost collective mythology. White hats, boots with spurs, and six shooters trigger thoughts of a frontier populated with lonely, troubled men who must ultimately use violence in the name of justice. To my classmates’ relief — or hopefully, if perhaps a bit narcissistically, disappointment — I do not believe “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a western.

What I love most about “Fury Road,” which is playing Thursday through Saturday in DeBartolo 101, is how its richly textured mythology is presented. Rather than give much in the way of exposition, “Fury Road” simply immerses the audience into its world, no questions asked. Consider how director George Miller presents the audience with a haggard society under the heel of an Ozymandian ruler, whose power comes from his control of the water supply. With just a few delicately framed shots, Miller displays the slaves’ conflicting hatred and reverence towards their despot, Immortan Joe. Look at the tattoos designating Max Rockatansky’s “crazy blood” as “hi-octane,” which seamlessly blend the film’s dieselpunk aesthetic with Miller’s own twisted vision of the future. The most telling detail in this vein is the attention paid to the ceremony of war. Steering wheels to the “war rigs” are stacked and stored in the form of a pyramid, or perhaps a Christmas tree. A blind guitarist heralds the arrival of Immortan Joe’s war party with piercing riffs from his twin-necked guitar/flamethrower.  Just fifteen minutes into “Fury Road,” we have an incredible familiarity with Miller’s world. “Fury Road” may not be a western, but it uses symbols to establish its mythology with the same beautiful economy that characterizes the best westerns.

“Fury Road” is essentially a two-hour long, kind of silent, but very loud chase movie. Rather than bore the audience, the straightforward story allows Miller to showcase his distinctive style. Consider Miller’s unconventional use of color. Many post-apocalyptic movies de-saturate their colors with reckless abandon. These movies — which are practically black and white — often mistake gloom for true depression. (Even the instant classic “Children of Men” indulged in this trope.) Conversely, Miller hyper-saturates his colors, meaning vehicles kick up sand of the same yellow-orange tint as sulfur, and the audience is treated to a turquoise sky rather than the run-of-the-mill grey sky they’ve become accustomed to. Miller knows the best method to portray his exceedingly complex story world is with an equally rich color palette. The results are breathtaking.

Despite the constant on-screen chaos, “Fury Road” is shot and edited with supreme clarity. Miller and his cinematographer, John Seale, wisely refrain from using the shaky cam technique that too many filmmakers use as a crutch to “heighten” (read: create) tension. Seale spends valuable screen time on long shots (the opposite of close ups), which allows the viewer to create a mental map of each scene. Lesser actions films skip this step, leaving the viewer at the mercy of an indecipherable barrage of quick cuts, rather than presenting a coherent action scene.

Miller’s most notable stylistic flourish is his manipulation of the frame rate. He indulges in slow motion frequently, but as an exclamation point at the end of key sequences, rather than a glorification of the violence. More interestingly, Miller strategically speeds up the onscreen action at important moments. It accelerates to breakneck speeds when Immortan Joe graces one of his disciples with eye contact, or when a mortally wounded “War Boy” sprays chromed paint on his face before engaging in a suicide attack, in a deranged cross between Seppuku and Kamikaze. This mesmerizing technique has the effect of mainlining adrenaline, and is reminiscent of the “Sunday May 11th, 1980” sequence in “Goodfellas.”

Perhaps the most notable aspect of “Fury Road” is its protagonist. (Spoiler: it’s not Max.) The story’s heart and unexpected hero is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Much has been made about the film’s feminist undertones, with critics singling out scenes in which Furiosa seems to be an even better warrior than Tom Hardy’s Max. Similar themes were present in the summer’s second-best blockbuster, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” Whatever your stance on the feminist movement in action films, there’s no denying that tough, emotionally charged performances like Theron’s deserve a universal audience.

“Fury Road” isn’t a flawless film. The end of the second act seemed clichéd on first viewing. One character makes a devastating realization, consequently walks off into the desert alone, and collapses; all while the orchestral score is cranked up to eleven. But to be honest, the second time I saw “Fury Road” I didn’t care that this scene may be trite. I was so emotionally invested in the lives of its nearly tacit characters that this admittedly inorganic flash of melodrama felt somehow earned.

Ultimately, “Fury Road” is something of a paradox. It’s a gloriously dense portrait of a wonderfully straightforward story. It’s a piece of popular, mainstream entertainment that shatters decades-old mainstream conventions. It’s a bizarre miracle. Even though Academy Award winners Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro Iñárritu and Charlie Kaufman are slated to release pictures in the coming months, you’re unlikely to see a better movie this year than “Fury Road.” Movies like “Mad Max: Fury Road” are why I go to the movies. Oh what a film! What a lovely film!

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is screening in DeBartolo 101 Thursday at 8 p.m, Friday at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and Saturday at 10:30 p.m.

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