George Miller’s fourth Mad Max film is a masterpiece, even in an era of dystopian films. Like Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, specifically referenced at one point, Fury Road blends the truly hideous with the spectacularly beautiful. The movie is an escapist odyssey that nonetheless passes hard judgments on humanity, a detailed descent into hell made with sure rhythms by a director who understands when to apply full throttle and when to ease up so we can think over all we have seen.
Nobody does action scenes better. “My world is fire and blood,” says Max (Tom Hardy stepping into Mel Gibson’s sandy boots) at the outset before munching a two-headed lizard. Then the most artfully choreographed opening chase scene since Indiana Jones follows. If The Road Warrior was a freak show war movie, and Beyond Thunderdome science-fiction fable-making, Fury Road is a western where hope and faith are ridiculed and then bought with a lot of blood. (The movie, though violent, shows little actual carnage.)
Hardy plays a laconic drifter drawn into saving what passes for a town in the post-apocalyptic outback. There’s even a captivity narrative concerning badass Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), stolen herself and who then steals the private harem of an evil warlord who looks like a troll doll on bad steroids. She runs for a paradise she remembers. Maybe they don’t ride horses — nature is eradicated, remember — but they do head the bad guys off at a pass twice with exploding spears, wacky hybrid vehicles, chainsaws, and the occasional flamethrower. Falls, flips, and slow-motion explosions abound.
It isn’t a pretty place. Tumors, goiters, and deformities also abound. But the film keeps turning corners into visions of beauty — the escaped women, a night beneath the unspoiled stars when a satellite goes overhead, and a strong take on women as warriors. Miller doesn’t stop to explain anything, but it’s a mistake to think his motives are unclear. “Who killed the world?” is the film’s mantra question. People running around in gashog vehicles after the fall is the shameful answer. People are still killing the world.