The day after the local release of Mad Max: Fury Road, the Herald Sun’s front page screamed ‘Save Our Women’. At first glance, the notoriously conservative tabloid’s effort to thwart the epidemic of violence against women is admirable, but old habits die hard. Even in this simple three-word headline, misogyny bubbles away, seemingly entrenched in the contemporary Australian mainstream media: it is, after all, not ‘Save Women’ or ‘Save Us’, but ‘Save Our Women’. Implicit here is the suggestion that women need men to save them, that women are things to be owned.
The idea of violence against women as a property crime between men has a long history. For example, as Kate Millett noted in 2000, ‘traditionally rape has been viewed as an offense one male commits upon another – a matter of abusing “his woman”’. The proximity of the Herald Sun headline to the release of the much hyped fourth instalment of George Miller’s iconic Mad Max series is profound: as this headline reminds us, imagining a world where broken masculinity is in charge as the film suggests is, sadly, all too easy.
It would be a mistake to assume the fantastic, fictional parameters of Fury Road’s cinematic dystopia render it ideologically barren. One of the film’s pleasures is in just how much it relishes sacrificing subtle political subtext for aggressive, in-your-face text. In Fury Road, women are called ‘assets’, bullets are ‘anti-seeds’, and breast milk is literally farmed. A large piece of graffiti in the women’s living quarters, shown early in the film, reads: ‘We are not things’. Car-chase heavy action vignettes are framed in an uncomplicated way around the villainous King Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Toecutter from the original 1979 film) discovery that his supposed ally, the indomitable Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has taken his ‘wives’ – five young women of good breeding stock – in an attempt to free them from his abuse and oppression.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, normative masculinity is not just broken, it is literally diseased. Survival for women in this film in many ways relies on their ability to find a way forward beyond often contradictory tribal manifestation of the kind of bat-shit crazy masculinity that can only be deemed ‘unreal’ if you are privileged enough to see no problem with the current gender political status quo. Fury Road is hysterical, violent and absurd, but do a quick read up on Gamergate and tell me the real world isn’t. That Vagina Monologues mastermind Eve Ensler was a consultant on the film is now widely known, and her involvement in expanding the film’s depictions of women who have survived trauma beyond Hollywood’s simplistic clichés manifests clearly on screen.
Cast in the eponymous role made famous by Mel Gibson, Tom Hardy is faultless in his reimagining of the iconic Max Rockatansky. Initially thrust into allegiance with the women by fate rather than choice, Max – and later the disillusioned ‘war boy’ Nux (Nicholas Hoult) – join their plight, an important reminder that feminism is not about a simplistic men vs women configuration, but rather a battle on a unified front against systemic oppression based on hatred, ignorance and difference.
But the film belongs to Theron. While she tackled a character that used violence as a way of responding to patriarchy in her Oscar-winning performance as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003), Fury Road is, at its core, a nightmare future configured around reproductive rights. Although broadly dismissed as a poor adaptation of the cult MTV animated series of the same name, Theron’s title role in the 2005 film Æon Flux was a tentative step towards a feminist reproductive rights superheroine. In Mad Max: Fury Road, we see the ideological threads of these past roles intersect in an explosive performance; a confident, take-no-prisoners frenzy.
The ‘fury’ in the film’s title is strategically designed to flag a broader demand for an end to oppression: the movie is doubtlessly as much about Furiosa (‘furiouser’) as it is Max himself. Recalling John Wayne’s redundant hero at the end of John Ford’s legendary Western The Searchers (1956) as much as Gibson’s Max, Hardy’s reimagining of the role presents a man forced by circumstances into a rock’n’roll, octane-fuelled ideological boot camp. Every frame of Miller’s recent film is a call to arms: the question is not why are the quivering Men’s Rights Activist goons so afraid, it is why aren’t they more afraid?
With South African-born Theron, British actor Hardy and a non-stop parade of familiar Australian faces, from the part Maori Megan Gale to Quentin Kenihan to Joy Smithers, Mad Max: Fury Road explodes out of a colonial consciousness. It also has particular poignancy specific to its Australian origins. For instance, its chroming, gullible ‘war boys’ are a grotesque caricature of what the cynical corporate-branding excesses surrounding the recent Gallipoli commemoration appear to suggest is the vision corporate Australia has of its primary demographic: a mass-boganification of the Australian public. Miller throws it back in their faces with the same ugly, shit-spattered aesthetic such cynicism deserves.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a reminder that the spirit of revolution – a demand for sudden, dramatic, urgent change – is not just possible, but sometimes essential. It is a wake-up call to the ideological conservatism and lack of diversity in contemporary blockbuster cinema. Even for those unmoved by Miller’s engagement with genre cinema – action movies are admittedly a distinct taste, and this film’s collage of car-chase set pieces surely will not be for everyone – Fury Road reveals that the film industry’s mollycoddling of an assumed fratboy majority is an ideological decision that upholds the dominant paradigm. Fury Road offers a joyful two-hour window into a world beyond this, revealing cinema’s potential in a post-Furiosa world.