Mad Max: Fury Road is an anxiety attack of a film.
I do not mean that Fury Road is anxiety-inducing—although this statement is also true. To watch Fury Road is to feel a panoply of emotions alongside its characters. Fear when the cars chasing them float above the heat waves on the horizon. Amazement and anger when the Five Wives are revealed, clipping chastity belts off each other, rinsing the dust off themselves and covering their unprotected skin from the heat of the baking sun. Curiosity about the new rules the wasteland-dwellers have written for themselves, now that the world has gone half-dead and feral. Excitement and incredulousness throughout the chase, beat by beat, as War Boys hurl themselves from one hunk of speeding metal into another and fire blossoms around their cars and their bodies. Anxiety rides hand-in-hand with all of these emotions. To watch Fury Road without feeling anxious would mean that the watcher is unmoved, out of sync with a film always in motion.
I do not wish to talk about how Fury Road makes me, the watcher, feel anxious. I can’t recreate the rush I get when I think about watching the film for the first time, neck aching from craning up at the screen from my second-row seat. The feelings I experience when watching the movie are both personal, and have been litigated over and over again on the internet since the movie’s release. Instead, I wish to talk about how Fury Road goes about its business conveying, on a technical level, the anxiety that haunts its characters and permeates its world. Action is the film’s genre: the skin it wears, the way it is perceived in the world. But the skeleton of the film is made not of action. It’s the emotions that drive the action. Anxiety is Fury Road’s strongest throughline: the beating heart at its center, the piston ramming its story forward.
Fury Road begins with a palimpsest of anxieties: radio transmissions of crisis after crisis, layered one atop the other until Max’s wasteland world takes shape under the accumulated chaos. Max says that his “world is fire and blood.” His world is also rust and steel, sandstorms and blazing blue sky, the last remnants of the old world cannibalized for parts. Civilization collapsed under the weight of wars over oil, then water, then gas; the wars metastasized, nuclear fallout hastening climate change until the seas dried up, leaving only sand and salt and heat.
After the end, the only things thriving are the things that brought about that very apocalypse: violence, anger, power, exploitation. The remnants of human life cling to the surface, scratching out an existence with the same currency that killed their world, and that will eventually kill them, too. The world that died by violence continues on in a violent half-life, its citizens crushed under the rule of warlords who personify the vices that hastened the end of civilization. Their desperate half-life existence is physical as well as metaphorical: cancer runs rampant, their bodies riddled with tumors, bearing the consequences of their ancestors’ sins written in the fabric of their being.
The wasteland holds only empty, sandy space, a vast expanse that can spare no room for living things. Plants will not grow—the earth, like the water, has gone sour—and any human who stops for too long is rendered vulnerable. People are uprooted from space and time, left with all of the convenience of modern technology but none of its comforts. To live in one place, alone and peaceful and tied to the land, would be to invite trouble. Many exist as small bands of scavengers, small, mobile, and suspicious: buzzards in rusty, spiked cars; cliff-dwellers armed with bombs and rocks; old women astride motorbikes, defending their sand dunes with guns and their wits and a strong suspicion of men. Such an existence is fraught with uncertainty that can only be met with action. Run or be run over; kill or be killed.
Only the warlords wielding the tools of their world’s demise hold enough power to stay comfortable. They take everything they can, pumping water and gas from the ground and milk from human women, farming bullets, cultivating people as fodder for their petty wars. Personhood is traded for commodity and independence for enslavement. War Boys are only valuable so long as they can fight in compliance with their warlord’s commands; Max himself is branded a “feral,” no longer a person but a blood bag, walking medicine useful for keeping sick War Boys on their feet. They all bear the Immortan’s symbol branded on their necks: a flaming skull inside a steering wheel, a reminder that they are parts in their warlord’s machine, and that they must keep moving at his direction or else be crushed under the wheels.
The Immortan’s War Boys benefit most from their service, but at the price of their individuality, keeping only their names with their fierce loyalty to their lord. All are painted white, the pits of their eyes stained dark: walking skeletons who not only expect to die for the Immortan but who welcome the opportunity. As lookalike interchangeable parts of a war machine, they jockey for position, fighting to drive the fastest cars straight into oblivion, terrified of being lost in mediocrity and failure. They know that they are destined to die in the wasteland, so they embrace their fate, calling themselves “kama-crazy,” and throwing themselves headlong into death-wish fantasies that might distinguish them enough to make them posthumous heroes. “If I’m going to die,” declares a sick War Boy named Nux, “then I’m going to die historic on the fury road!” His chest is scarred into the intricate shape of a car’s engine, his loyalties toward speed and cars and the warlord who made him a tool for war worn on the surface of his bare skin like armor.
The War Boys embrace the same lives of perpetual motion as the people they prey on, sowing seeds of anxiety and fear into the hearts of the other wasteland dwellers. Gasoline is their lifeblood; they must keep moving in their cobbled-together war machines. They are always chasing something—another victim, a runaway, another war party—with those chases punctuated by vicious fights. And even in the fighting, the chase cannot stop. It simply shifts from two dimensions into three, small cars weaving in and out of the larger machines as war parties attempt to dismantle each other on the run. Vehicles fall apart in the action, flip over, crash; the road warriors crawl across the outsides of their machines like flies on some great beast, swaying on poles above the action, shooting flamethrowers and Gatling guns, their movements lithe as they leap from car to car, spears in hand, or else jerky as they scramble across burning metal with superhuman speed. Their actions come with the stomach-drop of anxiety: the metal of the cars and the desert ground are both blazing hot and unforgiving; one wrong move would spell death for the War Boys, for the passengers, for Furiosa or Max. The fear comes from all sides, and it never stops coming.
Fury Road has been referred to, againandagain, as “one long car chase” “from point A to point B and back again.” This pronouncement is accurate, if reductive. Fury Road is one long car chase running from anxiety towards shelter, oscillating between the two in one long continuous feedback loop. The structure is present in the bare bones of the plot—escape, relief, escape again—but it is also ingrained in the very frames of the film.
No film can show action in real time. Fury Road gets around this limitation by abandoning all pretense of true time, exaggerating its breakneck action beyond believable human motion. The hyper-apocalyptic world is presented in an overcranked fashion, speeding up the movements of the camera’s subjects to breakneck pace. War Pups shuffle their feet stiffly as they line up in rows with uncanny quickness; War Boys flip over cars and slalom off each other, their movements impossibly fast. The effect is an adrenaline rush, and not one of excitement. For Max, it is a rush of fear, the jerk of limbs not quite under his control, the wild-animal need to escape.
The opening action sequence, in which Max is taken to the Immortan’s Citadel, is nearly completely overcranked, allowing the viewer flashes of action that only just register in the brain before cutting to the next shot. Max climbs out of his wrecked Interceptor, double exposure working double time to demonstrate his disorientation. The War Boys stretch Max prone, subjecting him to the sharp snip of shears cutting his hair and the droning buzz of the tattoo machine, marking him for what he is: high-octane crazy blood, about to attempt a high-octane crazy escape in unfamiliar territory. Max kicks himself free, dashing through sparks and the screaming saws cutting up his own car, running from danger to danger until he finds his way to an opening in the cavern and is stopped short by the open air of the cliff in front of him, and by sudden normal motion.
The frames’ return to their usual speed sends a shock to the system, a breath of release in the free air. The camera overcranks again as he dashes toward the opening, then slows down to capture his whole body stretched out by a desperate leap toward safety. The speed kicks in once more as the War Boys catch up, snagging him with hooks, yelling with delight as they recapture their prize, and Max’s face is covered with a cloth, his teeth pressing the outline of his open mouth into the face covering: a captured silent scream in a jagged O. Smash to black. In the Citadel, nowhere is safe: escape from danger will only result in a headlong chase, peril close behind.
Overcranking provides Fury Road with the speed it needs to get going; framing gives it the momentum it needs to keep from toppling over. Action scenes are filmed with direct, square framing, the crosshairs of the camera trained always on a single point: the nose of an actor, the yawn of a skull, the end of a gun. The camera’s single-minded, center-framed approach gives the viewer just enough information to process what is happening on the screen, but not enough to ever feel safe or comfortable. The result is a feeling of inevitable conflict with no certainty regarding its outcome.
When Max surprises Furiosa and the Five Wives in the desert, the first thing he sees is a war rig that can carry him far away from the Citadel. The next thing he sees is the women who also put their trust in the machine to take them away from their own captivity. His focus flickers between the water they waste to wash the dust off themselves—they luxuriate, obviously unused to desert thrift—and the bolt cutters they use to cut off their bonds. To Max, the women are an obstacle, fuzzy and unfocused. In his mind, they are secondary. The war rig offers him freedom and the open road, if he can manage to drive it away. The water and the bolt cutters offer relief from thirst and from the chain he still wears. Max has learned to distrust people, relying on his wits and the physical objects he can get his hands on. The camera focuses on the water nozzle and the drops that run freely from it, the bolt cutters and the chain binding Max, with the black hulk of the war rig looming over them all.
When Max tangles with Furiosa and Nux over the war rig, the single-minded focus remains. The camera takes on Max’s tunnel vision. The only thing that exists in the world right now is the task at hand, the wrench Furiosa swings at his head, the gun clip that might help him gain the upper hand. Each shot is quick, hard, and cruel: no soft focus, no pulled punches. Each shot has a point, an intent, a consequence. Furiosa swings a wrench, so Max uses a car door as a shield, which brings his chain within reach of the Five Wives, who pull the chain to knock Max off his feet: dominoes tumbling out of control. The fight swings in every possible direction with no clear upper hand until Max loads the gun and fires it into the soil around Furiosa’s head, a hard stop to a bitter struggle, the muzzle of the gun a small black period in the center of the screen. Max’s anxiety ends for a moment. Furiosa’s fear of recapture emerges.
The entire film follows this pattern of crisp, clear chaos: equilibrium, anxiety, action, then escape, over and over again. Max and Furiosa and the Five Wives escape from the Citadel, then their pursuers, then scavengers, then a massive sandstorm—on and on and on, always evading the jaws of danger by diving once more into an unknown and hostile environment. Margaret Sixel’s editing is staccato: sharp cuts in rapid bursts, the beats of the action running in precise time. When the camera zooms in on a focal point, Sixel holds the shot for a beat, giving the viewer somewhere to rest their gaze, prolonging the suspense of what other action could be happening elsewhere.
In one of many such shots, the war rig drives through a cloud of dust that threatens to block the engine intake. The camera zooms in on the pipes atop the war rig’s hood as a valve flips closed to block out the dust. The shot holds as the valve flips open again to clear the intake: a gasp of air, the machine breathing deep, action and wordless exposition all in one stroke. It’s a reassurance that the war rig will continue to run, and a reminder that it must continue to run, or its occupants’ lives will be snuffed out.
All other action is the valve shot writ large: long distance shots to convey the scale of the desert and the size of the war party chasing Max and Furiosa and the Five Wives, swift middle shots sizing up machinery as each war party attempts to dismantle the others’ vehicles in flight. Every action made by a human being is shown in single shots, from beginning to middle to end. Once swung, Furiosa’s wrench cannot be arrested; once crashed, a car cannot be righted. The motion must be carried through, or else be stopped by some immovable object—another car, or else the crush of gravity. The overcranked speed lends Sixel’s editing a sense of urgency; she has no need to obscure or confuse the action, because it is already superhumanly fast. The sniper focus of the camera creates a tunnel-vision clarity. Max’s world is fire and blood because those are the only things the camera can see, one action beat at a time.
As in any action movie worth its sweat, Fury Road’s editing runs in tandem with its sound. As with the framing and editing, the sound work is exemplary, underscoring every anxious flight of its characters. The War Boys are urged on to make war by a guitarist and a cohort of drummers—encouragement for them, a dire warning to the people they pursue. The guitar wails discordantly just over the horizon, a reminder of the violence following the fugitives’ tire tracks. The non-diegetic score thrums in time with the action as well, a double chord that evokes an engine starting. The sound haunts Max’s movements across the wasteland, punctuating the chase like some persistent Greek chorus. Thrum, thrum: Immortan Joe’s war party speeds down out of the horizon under boiling storm clouds. Thrum, thrum: the Immortan is angry. Thrum, thrum: Max and the others have only a five-minute head start against what Furiosa refers to as “the gratitude of a very bad man.” The thrum of the score is the pulse of a heartbeat, a reminder that Max and Furiosa and their allies are still alive and running, so long as they can stay ahead of the cacophonous engines of their pursuers.
The War Boys’ chase is still exuberant: they urge each other on, pounding the roofs of their cars, united in their excitement and in their admiration for the very bad man whose orders they follow. Their cries are a repeated litany: exhortations for the others to see their deeds and so give them the glorious deaths they crave, and praise for the Immortan. They are united in likeness and in purpose, and their cries reflect their motivations: simple words and commands to witness them. The War Boys run towards danger and a historic death, unlike Max and Furiosa and the Five Wives, who flee slavery and death towards more danger and an uncertain life. The Five Wives hope to find the Green Place; Furiosa is looking for redemption from the things she had to do to survive. Their dialogue—especially the dialogue of the Wives—is complicated, interweaving and overlapping with the voices of the others, their voices as mixed as their individual dreams and motivations. They all desire escape, but they each feel different anxieties about it, each one whispered, said, screamed, or wailed, laying their fears bare in the open.
Max prefers to speak as little as possible. Unlike the War Boys, who shout their ambitions at every opportunity, or the Five Wives, whose voices continually raise their fear of their pursuers and affirm a hope for a better life, Max presents a silent shell to the outside world. He retreats within himself, wasting few words and no breath. But his own brain is still no shelter.
Whenever he closes his eyes, he sees his past failures: people he used to know, all dead and all gone, all reminders of past failures, and of the stakes of the actions he takes now. They stride out of his past, directly toward him, pace measured even when all other action around them is overcranked. They are timeless; they alone look down the barrel of the camera as they approach. Their faces are overlaid with double-exposure skulls as they confront Max in the present—“Where were you? You let us die!” Unlike the War Boys, they do not wear their deaths like a uniform. Each one still has distinct facial features under the skull overlay. They have not been robbed of their individuality by flat white war paint. The effect is of a compounding of loss: they are not an old man’s battle fodder, but each one a lost, unique life, gone because they could not dwell in the violence of the Wasteland. They haunt Max’s memories and dreams because he cannot let his role in their deaths go; he lives in the desert of his guilt, caught between his fears of what might happen should he fail to save another, and of what might happen should he dare to engage with another human being again. Their loss broke Max, until he is left with his one remaining instinct: to survive. He’s given up on fixing what’s broken; he believes the world cannot be healed because it walks in the footprints of the one that went violently before it. He can only pick up the supplies he can carry and run with anyone else who can keep up with him.
And so, Max and Furiosa and the Five Wives sprint through the cycle of anxiety and shelter as they race across the desert away from the Citadel, skipping from danger to danger. They run from certain danger to uncertain danger, seeking Furiosa’s Green Place, an almost-mythical place of shelter. The further they get from their pursuers, the longer the time between dangers. The overcranked action dissipates as longer and quieter stretches of normal time encroach. The frames of the film flicker at near normal speed as they begin to settle in, their desperate sprint turning into a long-distance haul.
Until they meet with the Vuvalini, the old women of the desert, and Furiosa learns that her Green Place has been lost forever. Adrenaline is traded for despair. The anxiety Furiosa never voiced, never even considered, has come true: there are no safe places out in the unknown stretches of the desert. The camera lingers on the heft of Furiosa’s back and the lines in her face as she stumbles into the desert, the wind on the dunes mimicking time-lapse photography of sand floating across desert landscapes. Time slows once more when she falls to her knees and screams her rage and sorrow into the dry air. Grief never only happens in real time. It expands and it protracts.
Furiosa’s scream empties her of her remaining fear. She and the others have been running fueled on anxiety—who else could they meet in the wasteland, what dangers could they pose, what obstacles lie in their way. They’ve been running into the unknown this entire time, and it’s sapped them of their hope. They’ve run to the edge of the world, and found nothing there.
So they abandon their run into the empty desert. Instead of a desperate rush away from danger and into a nebulous unknown, they finally have a plan: take the Citadel. No more aimless wandering, no more desperate sprints to get away from their pursuers. And the only way out is through—a final dash back into the arms of the known, and the chance to redeem it, and to create safety in the process.
The final desperate fight as Furiosa and Max and the rest punch a hole through the Immortan’s forces still makes use of the framing and editing and breakneck speed of the movie up until this point, but this time, the bones of the film are not anxious but determined. The fugitives finally have a goal. Not a dream, not a memory, but a place—somewhere green, where they know for certain water flows and crops grow. How they’ll manage once they get there is another question, but at least once they make it, they’ll have found shelter from the half-dead demons that pursue them, and a chance to become acquainted with themselves. Perhaps they’ll find something worth cultivating. The Citadel could be so much more than a stronghold; it might just be a strong foundation, a place to build an oasis in the middle of a dead desert. A chance to build from what they have, instead of squeezing an existence from the empty nothingness of the wasteland. A better place, where they can create better selves, and maybe someday a better world.