When we’re introduced to Furiosa—the protagonist in George Miller’s fourth Mad Max film, Fury Road, it’s in a shot of the back of her neck. A brand—a skull surrounded by flames, the mark of the movie’s evil despot, Immortan Joe—sits, long healed, at the top of her vertebrae. You can see the bottom of her hair line, razored short, and the top of a shoulder guard. As she walks away, and the camera pulls back, you see the guard is linked to straps that hold her prosthetic arm in place, and you catch the side of her face as she scans her surroundings.
Just before this shot is an escape sequence in which Max, about to be branded himself, nearly escapes what you and he both learn is a high outcrop above the desert. Max breaks free from dozens of pale white war boys as they pursue him through the tunnels, only to be captured when he backs himself into the cliff.
The transition—from Max as he’s yanked back in to the rocks, to Furiosa as she walks confidently towards the war rig—is, like most of the film, extremely economical. It says a lot in just a few brief seconds: when you first see the back of Furiosa’s neck, you have Max’s capture and head shaving in recent memory, so you think you’re looking at him—you think the close up of the shot is telling you he was branded after his failed escape. This is the first of many ways in which the camera makes plain that Furiosa is an equal to Max.
There’s been some discussion of whether or not Fury Road is a feminist film, whether its unabashed celebration of violence and death preclude that label, or whether its admittedly extreme presentation of misogyny and literal smash-the-patriarchy plot device make it too facile to perform feminism. I’ll confess I’m not moved by either argument: feminism, like any political viewpoint, can be just as capably communicated via hyperbole as more subtle forms. And while feminism and non-violence have a long history, feminism is hardly a subset of pacifism—one does not need to be a pacifist in order to be a feminist. Not to mention that any work of art sufficiently good enough to warrant criticism is likely to be complicated enough that a straight up declaration of “yes, this is feminist” or “no, it isn’t” won’t be trivial.
The more interesting question is not whether or not the film is feminist but whether it furthers feminism: whether, via plot or character or camera it furthers the ideas of feminism.
To that I answer a resounding yes.
On one level, Fury Road is just an adrenaline-fueled, explosion-happy action movie (albeit, an extremely good one). But Miller has never been one to simply take the genre at face value, and throughout the film, the details show there’s much more going on. When Max first meets the wives, Miller briefly hints at what kind of movie he could have created: a wide shot establishes the wives, barely draped in white gauze and drinking from a hose, hinting at a post-apocalyptic supermodel fantasy shoot. (In the theater, several people giggled—rightly—at this shot.) In any other film, a series of close ups would have followed: slow-mo shots of the water hitting the women’s skin, pans running along their bodies from head to toe, pausing in all the right places. But instead the camera cuts away, and the exchange that follows—in which Max orders The Splendid Angharad to bring him water—shows that neither Max nor Miller have any interest in the women as objects. The only body part that the camera lingers over is Splendid’s very pregnant belly: a symbol of the abuse the women have suffered and to which Splendid declares they are not going back to. (We later learn that the line, “We are not things,” found plastered on the walls of the wives’ vault, is Splendid’s. The camera agrees with her.)
Just as importantly, the film refuses to objectify Furiosa’s disability. No character ever comments on her missing arm; we’re left to imagine how she lost it. The loss has clearly not stopped her from assuming the position of Imperator and driving a war rig, and throughout the film, she fights as hard as anyone else. Remember that Max himself is disabled: in the first film, he’s shot in the left leg; he wears a brace and limps slightly in every subsequent film. You can see the brace clearly in the very first shot of Fury Road, with Max looking out over the desert. In either case, the disability neither reduces their humanity nor serves as a clichéd obstacle they must overcome; it is simply who they are, a record of the lives they’ve lived.
There’s another relevant scene, maybe my favorite in the film: with the rig stopped in the mud, and the Bullet Farmer fast approaching, Max picks up a rifle and shoots at the approaching light, missing the mark. Toast the Knowing, who at Furiosa’s request did inventory of their ammunition, yells after him that he’s got only two shots left. He fires again and again misses. The light from the Bullet Farmer’s truck continues to advance. Furiosa, who had been holding a handgun on Nux as he sits in the driver’s seat of the rig, hands it off to one of the other wives and walks up to Max, crouching behind him. She motions, ever so subtly, for him to give her the gun: hands raised, waiting for it. In response, Max politely tips the gun back, relinquishing it, then remains unmoving (“Don’t breathe,” she says) as she aims and fires—the light in the distance quickly blinking out.
Max isn’t emasculated by this exchange: there’s no humor about giving the gun to a woman, nothing self-deprecating about his inferiority, no hint at all that he sees what happened through their gender. In fact at no point in their relationship does gender play any role at all: they are each warriors, each trying to survive, each rescuing each other, together for as long (or short) as that makes sense.
The violence in the film, while omnipresent, is also more complicated than it first seems. When Nux is first caught on the rig, Furiosa aims to kill him but is stopped by the wives—who made her promise they’d do no unnecessary killing. When he is discovered again by Capable, she sees him not as a war boy but as a boy—as a sick, exploited boy, taught to worship violent death because the alternative—the slow, cancerous death of a half life—wouldn’t inspire the kind of loyalty that Immortan Joe needs to maintain his power. But she refuses to dehumanize him, to see him as the thing Joe wants him to be, and instead welcomes him into their group.
Nux has been infected with toxic masculinity as surely as by radiation; Capable’s forgiveness cures him of the former. His transformation, then, is a feminist one: rejecting the notion that, as a man, he must be violent and embracing, instead, a role as helper. He spends most of the final battle repairing the engines, not killing.
Indeed, Nux becomes perhaps the only true hero of the film: he flips the war rig at the rock pass, ensuring Furiosa and the surviving wives and Vuvalini safe passage back to the Citadel. His final words to Capable—“witness me”—invert Joe’s homicidal directive. He dies not shiny and chrome—not a thing—but a person, an equal to the woman who saved him.
In the end, when Furiosa rises to the top of the rocks, the crowd chanting “let them up,” she doesn’t do so alone: the wives and Vuvalini are with her. Max, however, is not. Max is a creation of the same violent patriarchal masculinity that created Joe and his war boys. (In fact, Immortan Joe is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the same actor who played Toecutter in the first film, and who killed Max’s wife and child, transforming him from merely Max to Mad Max.) Max has no place in the future Furiosa will build. As Furiosa nods at Max as he slinks back through the crowd, she bids farewell not only to him, but also to the world that made him.
Max has ever been a passenger in the films, a victim more than a hero, and Fury Road is no different. But the film is more promising than the prior ones. In the other films, the ending always feels like a temporary reprieve, but here you can be forgiven for thinking the peace just might last. That is, Fury Road feels more hopeful precisely because of its feminism: a community rebuilt by the Vuvalini has a real chance. The overarching message of George Miller’s thirty-five year cinematic career, then, is one in which climate change and masculinity kill the world, and feminism provides a way forward.
At one point in the film, the Keeper of the Seeds asks the Dag if she’s pregnant, and the Dag answers, “it will probably be ugly.” To which the Keeper replies, “Well, it could be a girl.”
There is hope, after all.