“I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead, hunted by scavangers, haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this Wasteland.” — Mad Max
“Where must we go, we who wander this Wasteland in search of our better selves?” — Epilogue
George Miller opens and closes Fury Road with references to The Wasteland, the Grail Legend in which the spiritual sickness of a king is reflected in the barrenness of his kingdom. Just as in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem which takes its themes from the same story, in Fury Road the allusion is used to suggest that the bleakness we see in the external world finds its source in individual spiritual malaise.
This emphasis on psychological suffering is the reason Max is introduced to us as a subhuman character who lives a “half life” and suffers from a failure of reason (madness). His unkempt appearance and predatory behavior stresses his animalistic nature, as does his subsequent transformation into a beast of prey (“hunted by scavangers”) and his getting branded like cattle and muzzled like a dog. Fury Road will eventually restore both reason and humanity to Max, but in its first act the film paints its lead as less than human, even denying his character a name and referring to him simply as “blood bag”, a commoditization of life in tune with the script’s comparison of blood to gasoline (“top me up,” shouts Nux) and of men to machines.
As the film picks up, George Miller shows us the consequences of this individual madness and human commodification: the emergence of the Wasteland with its scarred and deformed people, the “sour” soil which parallels the infertile people, the exploitative economic structure (depicting a white elite subjugating an aboriginal community) and the predominance of death personified in the figure of Immortan Joe. The loss of humanity in these scenes is also reflected in the assembly-line production of “mother’s milk” (corporate profiteering replacing maternal affection), the general reliance on child labour, as well as Miller’s ironic repurposing of corporate symbols into religious and artistic artifacts, as in the War Boys’ worship of the V8 engine, casual religious references to “McFeasting in Valhalla” or even the transformation of music itself into a tool of war. We see all of these dystopian practices most directly with the Citadel, but George Miller generalizes his complaint about the destructive qualities of capitalism through casual references to other predatory settlements, such as “Gas Town” run by “The People Eater”.
Thematically, the point Fury Road is making is that the dysfunctional corporatism it sees as corrupting modern society is the consequence of humans living inauthentic and isolated lives, and that the consequence of any such a mode-of-living is self-destruction. And this is why the first part of Fury Road ends with a spectacle of violence and death. As the Citadel is betrayed by Furiosa, undone by the very forces it has engendered in classic Marxist fashion, an orgy of Roman-themed violence (note the visual references to the chariot race from Ben Hur) unfolds to suggest the essentially fascist and imperial nature of the regime. When Max sees his car (mirroring himself) repurposed into a tool of war and asks what else will be taken from him, the film has already given us its answer: his life. Visually crucified riding into an apocalyptic storm, Max is portrayed in these scenes as an ironic Christ figure, a “universal donor” whose blood sacrifice will ultimately topple the Empire. And thus the first part of the film ends with the death of Max as light fades to darkness in the sands of the lifeless desert.
With his characterization of the Wasteland complete, Miller turns his attention to the question of escaping from it, and as the second act of the film begins, the aggressive death imagery of the Wasteland is replaced by visuals of fertility and life, with day replacing night, the women unchaining themselves from locks suggestive of patriarchal control, and water (a symbol of life here) spilling onto the sands in sexualized anticipation of the larger release we will see at film’s end. Max is also symbolically reborn, yet as his character draws upwards from the grave, we see that he is still chained to Nux (“worthless” in proto Indo-European languages), the figure he most closely resembles and whose “night fevers” (bad dreams) make him a double for both Max (who is haunted by the dreams of his family) and Furiosa (who is obsessed with a vision of the past). The film has opened the possibility of redemption, but only to small degree: this idyllic interlude is unsustainable and the characters are still threatened from without.
The fight scene that follows ends with Max’s inability to escape in the stolen rig, a thematic failure that follows from his violent and selfish behavior. Yet as the escape continues and Max and Furiosa come to place greater trust in each other and promote each other’s welfare (as Max becomes “useful” to the community) their actions trigger a series of psychological changes. While letting Furiosa back onto the truck earns Max the file, for instance, it is Max’s voluntary decision to repair the sabotaged rig which triggers the removal of his animal mask. This same logic — victory following community-oriented acts of self-sacrifice — continues right up through Max’s defeat of the Bullet Farmer, where his character risks abandonment for the sake of the women and his selfless actions lead symbolically to his rediscovery of hope and restoration of sanity, and he returns to taste feminine love (mother’s milk) for the first time.
In these scenes and others, Fury Road argues that eliminating social exploitation requires a return to the communal love first experienced in childhood, and particularly between mother and child. This motif is most obvious with Furiosa, whose quest is quite literally an attempt to return to the green paradise of youth. Yet the journey is a return to the past in other ways too, such as the canyon entrance suggestive of a vaginal crevice, the dream-like realm of crows (a common symbol of the otherworld) beyond which we find the lost elders, not only Furiosa’s family but historically the pre-capitalist aboriginal communities from which “stolen children” were historically abducted by Australian society. The journey into the past is redemptive because it recovers an awareness of love, the seeds (of fertility and hope for the future), the wisdom of the elders, and turns society towards democratic forms of government instead of autocratic tyranny.
While George Miller sees the memory of childhood as necessary for overcoming our tendencies towards inhumanity, he is not so naive as to argue it is possible to recreate the past. Traveling back into the symbolized womb, we are shown it transformed into an infertile swamp. Furiosa is driven to despair on her recognition of this fact, and Miller pulls back from romanticizing pre-modern society, cautioning that living in the past is not only futile (the seeds won’t take) but that a true paradise requires movement into the future. As indicated by Miller’s allusions to The Wasteland, spiritual reformation will trigger social renewal, but it will come through a restoration of the barren kingdom introduced to us at the start of the story, not the creation of a new and better one elsewhere: the society that must change is the Citadel, for the Citadel is the only society there is.
This is the thematic and mythic reason driving the closing act, and this is also why the third act offers a conscious structural reversal of the first one. Standing on the cliff, Max is motivated by his past demons to rescue his friends from a fruitless attempt to find arable land in the ocean saltlands (the chaser and not the chased). Similar reversals continue through the journey home, as Max’s visions of the dead now help where they had previously hurt him, in one case even triggering a physiological response that saves his life. Now that Max is surrounded by community and properly motivated, even his suffering is transformed into a positive force. It is possible Miller is arguing that suffering is necessary for change, and that our experience of it enables us to become a catalyst for social change.
Regardless, the reversals we see in Max are paralleled by psychological transformations in other characters. As the film veers towards the death of death itself, Max’s doppleganger Nux regains his humanity through a romantic relationship that gives his life new meaning and his white face paint visibly fades as he recaptures his individual identity (note the somewhat paradoxical idea that the individual can only exist in community). By the time of his sacrificial death (a giving of blood that parallels Max’s donation to Furiosa) we even see Nux undergo a genuine religious experience where the emphasis is on his individuality (“witness me“), and his sacrifice contrasts with the suicide attacks by the War Boys, characterized as those are by ritualistic face-painting (the covering of the self) and drug-induced mania (the loss of human reason).
When Rictus describes his baby brother as “perfect in every way”, the audience intuitively understands that this is an ironic comment on the Wasteland, and the way human values in such an apocalyptic condition value life only as a commodity and without regard to its most important characteristic (conscious existence). But the defeat of Joe Immortan offers the defeat of death and this entire mindset, and the chase closes with Max donating blood to Furiosa in a re-enactment of the Christ myth: an inversion of the first act in which Max’s similar donation was involuntary. By shedding his blood for the community, and of his own free will, Max finally recovers his name (and full humanity) and becomes symbolically whole again as the group rides off into the sunset in an ending which echoes the positive conventions of the Western genre.
The closing scenes serve as epilogue which confirm this reading. The return to the Citadel shows the Wasteland restored. It is the protagonists’ acts of mutual rescue (their sacrifice to save Furiosa) which now save them in turn as the group is lifted heavenward by the children (the future rather than the past) who respond to maternal affection. The masses of humanity are uplifted where they had been previously downtrodden and water spills out into the desert in an image suggestive of both life and sexual fertility. Politically and mythologically, Australia has come to integrate its past into its present and undermined an exploitative and racist class structure. At the same time, Miller continues the Marxist themes of his previous films, showing that while Max may be the catalyst of this social change, he is denied it as a force trapped forever in his own time.