Violence, Action and Grace In George Miller’s Mad Max Saga

From Mad Max in 1981 to Furiosa, Miller’s preoccupation with the post apocalyptic wasteland continues
Designed by Hossein
Designed by Hossein

If the action of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) worked on our bodies by shortening the breath, its prequel in cine-time and sequel in real time, Furiosa (2024) works by letting the breath loose, knotting it in a sigh, instead. The opening stretch of Furiosa, a bike chase across the desert, is a statement of purpose — if you thought you were going to get more of the slit up, heaving, switcheroo action of the previous film, you would be better off returning to that film, because this film is more inspired by the landscape, more at peace with its scale.

Each shot stretches its limbs longer, lingering. The eyes are allowed to rest upon the shifting sands on deep-cut, sloping barchans, the flutter of loose sand producing vaporous shadows; the transient tyre marks on the burnt orange landscape struck by sandstorm, wiped off by wind. It is as though Miller has introduced into his Mad Max franchise, bursting with gay sadomasochistic histrionics, a strange, new possibility — grace. 

It is easy to mistake the grimy surface of his Mad Max films — Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981), Mad Max: Beyond The Thunderdome (1985), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — for ugliness. A doctor by profession, his psyche was scratched by the grotesque cases that floated into his emergency rooms, a suppurating imagery he pulled into his movies, his characters all open wounds. There was something decidedly repulsive about his images, the pustules and the stitched, opened mouths and the distended limbs and rotten teeth. 

A still from Fury Road
A still from Fury Road

But you can also sense his preoccupation with beauty, often tied to awe. The way Max in Max 2 is floating above a landscape, his fainted, bloody face in the bottom right of the frame, and the landscape scrolling past in the distant background; the silhouettes of the people, dusted by an evening storm, standing on an abandoned airplane in the middle of the desert in Mad Max 3. Miller even released a black and white version of Mad Max: Fury Road as a counterpoint, to insist that the association of monochrome with classic beauty could be applied to his camp chaos. 

But grace is more specific. It is the edgeless quality of a gesture. To see young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) standing, being picked up and plonked onto a revving bike in one fell scoop, or to see Furiosa’s mother (Charlee Fraser) just launch and jump onto a moving horse that gallops away to retrieve Furiosa, is to experience that grace. 

From Buster Keaton to Furiosa

The action sequences, too, have a less hectic, certainly less heady affect. Where Mad Max: Fury Road had Max’s chase sequence through corridors in a frame rate that could turn resting eyes dizzy — the average length of a shot in that film was around 2.3 seconds — Furiosa’s swelling rig-chase is almost swaying. The camera is looking onto a scene from behind a bike that is flanking the rig; the man sitting pillion balloons open his parachute; a flight from his seat; flying over to the other side of the truck, only to get extinguished. All of this is one take. The rushing thrill of watching Furiosa is often not in the act itself — as it was in Mad Max: Fury Road — but in the capturing; not just the technical finesse but the smoothness of these leaping motions. When Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) — who rips Furiosa from her place of abundance, only to barter her off — is looking over a landscape, watching as his men hijack and capture a rig full of guzzolene, the camera is behind him, watching as the men in the distance spew speed and fire, cindering the driver. The camera could have been in the thick of the action, out there. This smooth, uncut distance was preferred, instead. 

A still from Fury Road
A still from Fury Road

It is unsurprising that Buster Keaton keeps getting referenced by Miller in interviews. It is not just that Keaton performed his own stunts, mirroring Miller’s preference to not green screen his storyboarded pummels. In The General (1926), Keaton is perched on a cow-catcher of a moving train — there are visual callbacks to this, seeing Max strapped to the front of a vehicle as a human shield. Keaton rushes onto the tracks to remove an obstacle that could topple the train over, all with the camera unmoved, the shot undisturbed. Now, the ambition of this undisturbed state has been raised, even as the undisturbedness itself hasn’t been relinquished — the cut is not as prominent as it was. 

It is not just grace, but also a comfort with silence. In Mad Max: Fury Road, stretches of quiet between punches of action were pregnant with anticipation. The film never released its grip. In Furiosa, the screen often goes so quiet, you can hear the leaking sounds from a nearby theater screen, even the uneasy butt shifting in its seat can be heard, the scratching of denim against leather. “You can say that Fury Road was a presto movement, for the most part. Furiosa has a few more moments of adagio,” Miller notes. 

A still from Fury Road
A still from Fury Road

A Creature of Action

Part of this is because the motions of Furiosa are more unwieldy. While Mad Max: Fury Road is set over three days, Furiosa traverses the terrain of over fifteen years, from her childhood into her coming of rage. (What we’ve been shown in the film is what Miller had written and conceptualised as backstory while preparing for Mad Max: Fury Road). It is not just a chase, but a carsick motion between various fortresses — the Citadel, the Bullet farm, Gastown. Especially as Furiosa, “a creature of action rather than words”  as Miller notes, grows up and is embodied by Anya Taylor-Joy, the character gets lost in between these set pieces. It often takes these moments of high-stakes adrenaline for the character to actually make sense — to finally understand and articulate what it is she wants. Sometimes she sways to the tune of returning home and planting the peach pit, a promise she made her mother. Elsewhere, it is revenge that drives her to shred Dementus, the man who crucified her mother. These shifts — important — take place behind Taylor-Joy’s empty gaze. The intentions are clarified only when sublimated as action. 

Mad Max (1979) was Miller’s debut feature. Since Miller did not have the budget to shoot an action film in the contemporary city, he set it in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and envisioned Mad Max as “a silent movie with sound” to be “read as visual music”. There is a scene in that film where four bikers crash into Max’s car on a bridge, two bikes thrown off the bridge and two tumbling down the road. We don’t see the “crash”, but the quick edit — crash zooms into Max’s bonnet — allows us to not linger on what is missing. What we get instead is an accidental shot. One of the bikers who is supposed to skid off the road got highsided and his headgear was whacked by the front wheel of the other bike. He survived this gaffe, and produced the one image of miraculous resonance from that film, saturated as we are, our threshold for awe much higher and much more demanding as the decades aged. 

A still from Furiosa
A still from Furiosa

Garnering an archetypal attention worldwide — the Japanese seeing in Max the Samurai, the Sandinavians as the Vikings, and the French as a “Western on wheels”, and a strange American-dub over the Australian film — the film’s success turned a narrative convenience into a franchise. There was Mad Max 2 (1981), and Mad Max: Beyond The Thunderdome (1985), digging deeper into the possibilities of a post-apocalyptic world, each film queerer than the last. 

In the Thick of Violence 

As critic Roger Ebert notes of his movies and their bizarre production design, “[it] is to fighting as 3-D chess is to a flat board”. The “Thunderdome” in his third film, for example, is a boxing ring outrance, what Ebert called “the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies”. It is a metal dome framework where spectators are perched, looking down at the fighters who are strapped on elastic harnesses flying around like fairies to leap and pick up weapons stuck to the frame of the dome. 

Then, there is Coma-Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road, the blind guitarist who is part of Immortan Joe’s militia, hanging from the Doof Wagon by two dangling ropes, playing a flame-throwing electric guitar, keeping the suicidal excess of the War Boys intact — all of this was shot on location. This is where the originality of Miller’s vision, which has always been there, finds itself expressed in a language of awe that we can still react to, be tugged by.

More than half of Mad Max: Fury Road is not in the traditional 24 frames per second — sped up to produce adrenaline from the action or slowed down to produce clarity of what action is being performed. A lot of the scenes were shot in 48 frames per second, giving them extra footage to play around with the rhythm, producing a disorientation by slowing some things down, the pull of gravity feeling like too much, and sometimes too little. The entire film is an extended chase. Here, action was not something that peppered the film’s surface. It was the film. Working with five storyboard artists, Miller drew up 3,500 panels, which is almost the number of shots in the movies. The screenplay of the film emerged from these storyboards — a “visual-first” approach that Miller often cites. 

Eyes bleary from the adrenaline-glazed combat films, it is easy to believe that action is produced entirely in the edit; from the disaggregation of the body and a splitting of a moment into fractals. For instance, a pummel being separated into exertion, impact, and aftermath in a slick slitting of a single gesture. Miller’s earlier Mad Max Trilogy did precisely that — even a gunshot needs seven shots to be stitched together: Max looking back, the guy shooting; a shot of the bullet through the calf; of the legs faltering; of Max falling; of the gun leaving his hand. With Mad Max: Fury Road and now Furiosa, Miller has scripted a new kind of presence in the action film; a corporeal poetry, folding in the possibilities afforded by technology to transcribe the violence afforded by imagination. 

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