(FAIR WARNING: MAJOR FILM SPOILERS THROUGHOUT!)
For all of the accolades and criticism the spectacular (I’m not biased, really) Mad Max: Fury Road is still receiving, one of the most fascinating pieces of criticism I keep hearing/reading from viewers on and off the web is that the film is lacking in plot.
I’m not a literature academic by any stretch of the imagination. I’m, more or less, a composition specialist. That said, I’m, more or less, a composition specialist, which essentially means I can break narrative writing down (even screenwriting, standard three-act structure or otherwise) to its essential components.
Well, hell, I can try at any rate.
This is the basic construct of PLOT, loosely according to Freytag’s Analysis/Pyramid (Look that shit up):
Keep in mind that additional components are necessary to advance the plot. We need…Oh, I don’t know… Characters, conflict, theme. Those sorts of things.
Okay, so on with the plot of Fury Road…
EXPOSITION: An introduction to the primary characters and setting
This may be Fury Road‘s weak point, but I’m not entirely convinced it is…
A friend/colleague of mine and her husband had been to see the film, too, and I couldn’t wait to hear what she’d thought of it. She’s just one of those people whose opinions I hold in high regard, probably even moreso now that I know she’s a fellow Mad Max fan. I wasn’t crushed that she didn’t enjoy it as much as I had (I’d seen it twice, incidentally, but that sort of goes without saying). Perplexed, a little, maybe. However, out of concern for those who’d not been familiar with original three films, she’d been disappointed with the seeming lack of exposition, vital to plot. The viewer is instantly thrust into this bizarre post-apocalyptic world with no tangible sense of the how’s or why’s (even Max’s introductory voice over and the media broadcast bits at the beginning reveal bafflement, questions, and non-answers) and a jolting intro of the who’s and where’s.
In retro, the Mad Max films have never had much in the way of an introductory set-up, apart from a little bit of vagueness from the voice overs (the Feral Kid as an adult in The Road Warrior) or title cards (Mad Max), if any at all. We’ve always been tossed into this future world and forced to accept its overt brutality and chaos. All we ever really get is a hint that the cause of society’s decay could’ve been a war over oil — The Road Warrior toys with the idea that “juice” (gasoline) is a precious commodity — and, perhaps later, nuclear war followed (which is hinted at in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome).
By the way, fellow Mad Max aficionado Alex Maddison offers an interesting overview of the chain of events that leads the viewers of Fury Road to its desolate wasteland setting. He’d used the novelizations of the three first films to build an impressive timeline of events in the Mad Max world.
Fury Road begins with its namesake character and the first of the film’s two protagonists, the emotionally damaged Max Rockatansky, alone in this post-apocalyptic landscape, out minding his own scruffy business when he is relentlessly pursued by an off-road gang. They collide with his Interceptor and take him as prisoner into a network of caves in an intricate habitat, the Citadel. He attempts to escape his captors, the War Boys, only to be caught again.
The exposition is far from over, however, as we are then hurriedly introduced to our second protagonist, the steely Imperator Furiosa, as she prepares to drive her War Rig for an excursion from the Citadel to Gas Town. Immortan Joe, the heavy metal Darth Vader-esque leader of the Citadel, makes his routine announcement of the excursion to a parched, filthy crowd. His words over the loudspeakers are fiery, prepping the crowd for its briefly timed pump of “aqua cola” (groundwater) and a gaggle of his pasty, kamakazesque War Boys for their trip with Furiosa.
Granted, the exposition “shows” rather than “tells” the viewer any of this, but Miller has always done this sort of thing in the Mad Max films. Exposition is purely visual and visceral. Do we really need to be told anything? Isn’t film about “showing” the viewer?
RISING ACTION: Build-up of action which also introduces the plot’s central CONFLICT
Suddenly, something significant happens. What was meant to be a routine trip across the highway to Gas Town turns into an unexpected detour for Furiosa and her group. She deliberately swerves off the road and guides her rig and convoy into the dangerous Wasteland. When Immortan Joe discovers this (by now, we recognize he’s more than likely the film’s antagonist), he checks deep within the confines of his Citadel and makes an alarming discovery. Some of his more valuable “property” has, apparently, gone missing, so he sends a War Party after Furiosa. YAY! CONFLICT!
In the “medical facilities” (my words) of the Citadel, Nux, an injured War Boy who happens to be hooked up via IV to Max, his designated human “blood bag,” volunteers as tribute, and–
Well, hell. Close enough. Nux desperately wants to volunteer for the mission to go after Furiosa, so, still connected to his “blood bag,” he hitches Max, poor sod, to his car and away he goes.
The action then goes nutso and continues this way until close to the film’s climax when everyone gets a proper breather for a few minutes. Not only does Furiosa and her group have to contend with local marauders in their cute, little hedgehog cars (plus an impressive crane with a whirling blade-majig)…
…She also has to get rid of the War Boys who’d joined her on her detour, and THEN she has to shake off the trail of Immortan Joe’s spectacularly loony war party.
At least she doesn’t have it quite as bad as Max, still hitched to Nux’s vehicle.
Furiosa then makes a potentially suicidal detour right into the most outrageous electrical sandstorm one would possibly never encounter outside of some CGI-created nightmare.
It does the trick, causing the ever-growing war party to stall a bit. When the dust finally settles, so to speak, Max comes to, detached from Nux’s car, but, still, unfortunately, linked to Nux. He carries Nux’s limp body to the stalled War Rig where he comes face-to-face with the truth of the matter, what Furiosa had been hiding in her rig.
The revelation of Furiosa’s beautiful charges momentarily startles him. He’s as visibly shaken by the sight of the women as are we. Again, Miller never once has to “tell” us anything. We know from the get-go that these young women were being rescued; that there’s something immensely valuable and purposeful about them, that they were the ones who’d been taken from the confines of Immortan Joe’s Citadel. The fact that one of them is visibly pregnant only adds to the conflict.
Furiosa waits, ever watchful, ever wary, for Max to make a move. Ever one for practicality though, a survivor in the Wastelands like everyone else, he demands water and to be unchained from Nux…and then, par for the course in this world, a fight ensues.
As the war party gains traction, Max attempts to steal the War Rig, but Furiosa, leading the way for her charges, knows perfectly well the Rig will shut down. She’s the one who, as she tells him, knows the kill switch activation sequence because she’d been the one who’d set it. It’s her vehicle, her baby, after all. As diehard Mad Max fans know anyway, in this world of “fire and blood,” everyone’s known by their vehicles.
Max cautiously joins the group in their journey to the “Green Place,” Furiosa’s homeland as is eventually revealed through bits of dialogue, but not after collecting all available weapons in the Rig. Nux is ever so elegantly booted out of the Rig by the girls and picked up again by the war party not too far behind.
The chase continues. (And anyone arguing there’s no conflict in this has no idea what conflict means and/or may be simply trolling for attention)
So much occurs here – it’s almost difficult to detail, building and building to the climax.
The action escalates once again. There’s a rocky blockade, one that Furiosa had prepped and haggled for, plus an attack by the Tusken Raiders who’ve claimed the rocky territory (okay, fine, not Tusken Raiders, but close enough as Rock Riders). Immortan Joe’s War Party, having been joined by two more parties from Bullet Farm and Gas Town, comes just within reach again. There’s a tragedy that’s immensely shocking to anyone with half a conscience (and, even through all of these spoilers, I shan’t reveal it or its impact). Nux also offers himself as self-sacrifical-lamb-on-a-shiny-path-to-the-gates-of-Vahalla, intent on making an impression on Immortan Joe. Nux now knows the Rig, after all. He stumbles and bumbles, utterly cocking it up in the eyes of his master, who leaves Nux behind on the Rig.
Furiosa, Max and co. manage to evade the War Party once again, but only just. Nux is somewhat comforted by Capable, one of the lovely charges, his master’s rejection, plus the possibility of no immortality at the gates, wearing him hard.
The War Rig later enters a gaseous, murky area while the dusk hits, a surreal place where its inhabitants roam the muddy landscape, wavery on their stilts.
Of course, the Rig gets stuck in the mud. Nux presents a solution just as the machine-gun crazy Bullet Farmer, disgusted enough that he’d had to join the war party (“All this for a family squabble,” he mutters), takes it upon himself to get close enough in range to shoot at them.
In the end, they escape once again, only just, ever only just.
When the daylight hits, Furiosa, Max and company, now far from their source of conflict, come across another odd sight, a naked woman calling out for help on top of a rickety, makeshift tower. Max warns Furiosa it’s “bait,” but she knows better. She reveals herself, calling out the name of her mother, her “tribe” the Vuvalini, her past such as she remembers. Her party is greeted warily at first, welcomed by the woman and, as the “bait” reveals, a motorcycle gang of women, weathered and toughened by the Wastelands. They are the remaining survivors of the Green Place, Furiosa’s homeland, which, essentially, is where the climax hits…
CLIMAX: The turning point whereupon the action must change accordingly in order to reach the RESOLUTION.
One of the Many Mothers of the Green Place — one of the survivors — informs Furiosa that the Green Place is no longer, having become nothing more than a toxic, muddy landscape — in fact, it was the same area where the Rig had gotten stuck during the night.
And Furiosa, realizing it’s been all for naught, that her home is no longer, loses it.
(Can’t say I blame her.)
Later, a decision is made amongst the women. Furiosa informs Max they’re heading across the seemingly never-ending salt flats, a journey that may or may not land them in better terrain. She issues him a motorcycle and supplies and invites him to join them on their journey, but ever the archetypical loner, Max declines… It isn’t long though before he comes up with a solution for the group that is the real turning point — of Fury Road. He stops them before they go any further and presents his solution:
Return back to the Citadel.
Not as quite as insane as it sounds, he relates, as the Citadel has the “green” they’re looking for due to a vast water supply.
Of course, Furiosa is hesitant. Who the hell wouldn’t be, after all? It’s a virtual suicidal mission, but there wouldn’t be any sort of resolution if she didn’t agree to it…
So off they go, heading their party, remnant “mothers” at their side, back around…
FALLING ACTION: Moves the audience/reader into the resolution/denouement
Because George Miller has his audience continuously on the move with his protagonists, the falling action of Fury Road feels as if it’s climactic in itself. This may be a point of contention amongst the literature buffs, for the climax, the turning point, of Fury Road could’ve simply been seen as the explosive road battle that ensues on the way back to the Citadel, but I’m merely relying a little on my own schooling of Freytag’s Analysis.
Personally — and moderately professionally — speaking, I don’t think the “turning point” could be any more obvious than it is. They actually TURN AROUND, for shit’s sake.
Anyway, yes, in order to get back to the Citadel, our heroes must fight their way through, and it’s more of what Miller is adept at presenting to his thrill-seeking audiences. Lots of crazy car action, explosions, pole-swinging, fighting on top of speeding vehicles, general mayhem and insanity…
You know…some of this:
A little of that:
General pissed off-ness:
Then all of this sort of thing:
Most importantly, as our protagonists escape the War Rig — driven on its suicidal end by the ever-devoted, but changed Nux — and hop onto Immortan Joe’s vehicle, a fatally injured Furiosa enacts one last bit of violent revenge against the warlord, slaughtering him in the process. Ding dong, the witch is dead.
Max saves Furiosa, only just, thanks to his unintended training as a human blood bag. Then the heroes, minus a few, return to the Citadel where they are greeted by a cheering crowd. A battered, weary Furiosa presents the corpse of Immortan Joe to the crowd and to those at the top of the Citadel, and, well, who knows what’s next for Furiosa and the women she’d rescued?
As for Max, he’s always known how to bow out gracefully, relatively speaking. As Furiosa and her party are elevated up on the rising platform to the confines of the Citadel, she turns to say something to Max, but he’s gone. She glances down at the crowd and only just catches sight of him there. They exchange a silent good-bye, and he disappears into the crowd…
A few THEMES in FURY ROAD, all essential to plot:
Feel free to disagree with me, but for an action film, this was LOADED with subtext. I was mostly impressed by the following themes, all of which left an impact on me, especially after a second viewing:
Patriarchal and matriarchal governance
Commodification and Commerce
Retribution (Isn’t it always about this?)
Mechanization (even simply man and technology)
Sacrifice (“Witness me!”)
Ritualism & religion
So that’s my analysis. It’s not grand by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not intellectually riveting whatsoever. That said though, it’s plot.
Next time, focus.