When The Fella and I saw Mad Max: Fury Road this week, we first sat through a series of trailers for action franchises, each featuring men in elegant suits and their (much younger) female stars stripped down to underpants, backs turned demurely to the camera but bodies oiled up with the promise of shining treasures to come.
In these trailers, women were reduced to glamorous cuts of meat: a gleaming leg in a high-cut dress, a shimmering shoulder emerging from a bed sheet, water-beaded flanks stepping out of a pool, often with no face in evidence.
By the time the feature started, I was more than annoyed. I was more than frustrated. I was more than furious. I was dehumanized. Frankly, I was primed to see the worst in in Fury Road‘s first act. So when the film presented a bevy of distressed women, scantily clad and bathing in the desert, I drew in a long, angry breath.
Then that scene upends itself, tossing aside the male gaze that most film privileges without even thinking, and the handful of women who drive this story start breathing on their own — not damsels, not trophies, not eye candy. They’re people.
Their bodies are valued in the world of the film, and so is their beauty (and there’s a complicated conversation to have about uncritically reiterating contemporary standards of beauty in apocalyptic film), but Fury Road recognizes what Immortan Joe’s society never does: These women are more than their beauty, more than their bodies. And finally, their bodies are theirs.
They’re clearly survivors of sustained sexual slavery and repeated rape, but there’s no on-screen sexual violence, no threat of rape, no gruesomely told backstories, no lingering detailed flashbacks. The film is violent, extravagantly so, but that violence is never lascivious.
It’s a narrative predicated entirely on the rescue of women held in life-long sexual slavery that never portrays or reenacts the atrocity of rape. In Mad Max: Fury Road, survivors of sexual violence don’t have to persuade the protagonists or the audience of the horrors they suffered. The film believes them, and — overturning the real-world rape-culture narratives we’re steeped in — it expects us to believe them, too.
It’s a tight story economically told. It’s a thrilling explosion of action that never fumbles its narrative thread. It’s a tale that knows how much to say and when to let us fill in the blanks. It’s a rumination on primal connection, the corruption of power on weak and strong alike, and the terrible road to redemption. It’s a woman’s story in which a man tags along for the ride, offering support and help, knowing when to simply sit still and let her take the wheel, or the gun, or the lead. It’s a world in which Furiosa can pay Max and Nux the deceptively deep compliment of deeming them “reliable.” It’s a world in which men and women alike are reduced to things, liberate themselves, and reclaim for their own purposes the attributes that made them prized objects.
And that’s why George Miller’s films will get ALL MY MONEY and — just to pick one trailer we sat through — Mission Impossible never will.