Style as Substance: The Beauty of Simplistic Storytelling in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

In Featured, Joe Campbell, Movie Reviews, Reviews by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Joe Campbell –

The following article discusses specific plot points from the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, and thus contains spoilers.

In the few years since George Miller’s return to the Mad Max franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road has been revered as a modern classic of sorts.  The film was lauded by critics on its release and was nominated for ten academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.  But as is inevitable with widely praised movies, a consistent, if quiet, criticism has been levied against it by a skeptical minority.  Dave Smith says in his review for Business Insider, “‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is not a bad movie…But for all that style, I wish there was a little more substance and character development.” Sean Nelson writes in his review for The Stranger, “It’s noticeably dumb in certain ways, but its visual intelligence and wit vastly outweigh its concessions to the genre…”  Even the acclaimed critic Leonard Maltin wrote, “Action junkies will get their fill…But I stop short of calling it a great movie because it lacks heart and soul to match its abundant energy.”  

The question posed is clear: sure, Fury Road may be a breathless action flick, but is it really anything more than just a two hour chase scene?

In many ways Fury Road could be hailed as the poster boy for “style over substance” filmmaking.  The titular Max is given only a minimal amount of dialogue, and the plot is a literal line from point A to point B.  The film is colorful, kinetic, and stylish, sure, but its characters ring hollow, not given the space to breathe and flourish as three dimensional people.

Or do they?

By breaking down why Fury Road works as a great piece of storytelling, perhaps we can figure out the advantages of action-driven filmmaking.  The movie rarely slows down, but I would argue that the keys to the characters’ growths and motivations are to be found within the trappings, not lost because of them.  The film doesn’t prefer style over substance, the substance is within the style.

As an example, take the simultaneous introduction of our hero, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and villain, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).  A series of shots gives us glimpses of the two characters before full face reveals. Furiosa enters the War Rig, calmly sliding the steering wheel into its socket and powering up the tanker; Immortan Joe dons his showy trapping, a patchwork combination of royal regalia and mechanized horrors.  Furiosa is confident and graceful; Immortan Joe is commanding and frightening. Both exude control in ways that directly contrast the destitute crowd that frantically mills about below. Immortan Joe controls others through fear and power; Furiosa is controlled by no one but herself.

All this information is given to us without a word being said, or even before we’ve seen these characters’ faces.  Everything we know is communicated visually. When Immortan Joe addresses the crowd, we already have a basic understanding of what we should be feeling for these characters without knowing an inch of backstory.  A few moments later, the simple movement of a truck turning left is an unmistakable act of defiance, and without knowing the exact purpose of that defiance, we are already rooting for Furiosa to escape the clutches of the Immortan Joe and his War Boys.

There are numerous other examples throughout the film of how it communicates information through actions.  Each time the tanker stops, some balance in power is changed. First, Furiosa is in charge, then Max commands the tanker, then a reluctant alliance is established between the two, then Nux (Nicholas Hoult) threatens to upset the scales.  Goalposts are constantly pushed farther back. Our team needs to make it to the biker gang in the canyon. When that plan falls apart, they need to plow on ahead to The Green Place. When that doesn’t work out, they need to turn around and head back to the Citadel.  Each action presents a new conundrum that changes the direction of the story and the objectives of our heroes.

This is true of the action scenes as well.  Perhaps no other character grows and changes over the course of the runtime more than the frenetic Nux, and these changes take place almost exclusively during action set pieces.  When we are introduced to him, he is a scrawny, volatile War Boy with something to prove. Although he is fatigued (and possibly dying), he fights for his right to command a vehicle to pursue Furiosa across the desert, not for the responsibility itself, but to regain his honor. He craves approval from Immortan Joe, whom he worships as a sort of god-like figure.  In the proceeding chase sequence, he loses his car, seeming to fail in his quest of a heroic death. In the fight sequence that follows, he gains control of the War Rig, openly fantasizing about the glories that will be heaped on him through Immortan Joe’s favor, only to have that fantasy wrenched away from when he’s thrown out of the tanker.

But perhaps the most powerful example of cathartic action storytelling comes later in the movie, when Nux leaps from Immortan Joe’s massive death car back onto the tanker.  He is at the peak of his happiness, having gained the recognition he’s always wanted from Immortan Joe and promised a prestigious place in the afterlife for conducting a suicide mission.  This state of euphoria comes crashing down as Nux haphazardly trips on his own feet, failing his mission. The last thing he sees of Immortan Joe is his god-king mocking his incompetence, and it irreversibly sets Nux on a different path that leads to his redemption.

All this happens over the course of a few seconds during a chaotic car chase sequence.

This is why the film has been so well received, despite being an insane Australian action flick featuring a red pajama-clad warrior wielding a flamethrower guitar atop a truck made of amps. I’m not saying Fury Road is an especially deep movie, but it’s absolutely an effective one.  The focus of the film is razor sharp, yet the balance can change in an instant. Sometimes I think the best stories are the simplest ones, the ones that use linear storytelling to explore basic human mentalities; they can open the door for fascinating character studies by throwing people into basic good vs evil situations.  There will always be a place for complex stories, but sometimes I think we tend to overlook just how important a “big dumb action film” can be.


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids age 3 and under.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.