“All this for a family squabble,” sighs the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), the leader of one of several tribes chasing our heroes in Mad Max: Fury Road. He’s talking, of course, about the film’s main conflict: the ruthless warlord Immortan Joe’s attempt to recapture his fleeing wives from our heroes, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Mad Max (Tom Hardy). And the Bullet Farmer, as crazy as he is, is technically right: This is a family squabble — one that eventually consumes all the many tribes of this futuristic hellscape. But it’s kind of an odd line to throw in there. When I first heard it, I thought he was talking about something else — that maybe there was some backstory to this world that involved a divided family. (Immortan Joe, the Bullet Farmer, and the leader of a third tribe, the grotesque People Eater, played by John Howard, are all around the same age; I briefly even wondered if they might be brothers.)
But “family squabble” has deeper resonances as well in George Miller’s cinema. You could say that his career began with the destruction of one family, and that he’s been trying to put them back together ever since. In 1979’s Mad Max, the low-budget action classic that was the then-doctor Miller’s feature directorial debut, no-nonsense highway cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) ran afoul of a demented biker gang, who then brutally cut down his wife and infant son.
That first Mad Max was only slightly dystopian — it was set a few years in the future, and showed some institutions beginning to crumble, but its world was still not unlike ours. Its 1982 follow-up, the now fully postapocalyptic Road Warrior, found Max driving through a nuclear wasteland. But he was still haunted by those earlier deaths; the first film’s image of a lone sandal and a child’s toy ball bouncing on a highway remained a primal memory of loss, as horrifying as the memory of nuclear war that started off the second film. It wasn’t hard to imagine that the postapocalyptic landscape of The Road Warrior was as much mental as it was external. Or even that the death of one nuclear family in one film led, figuratively at least, to the post-nuclear world of the next. In fact, lost families inform the actions of both bad guys and good guys in The Road Warrior: "We've all lost someone" is a recurring refrain on both sides — suggesting that each person has gone mad in their own way in this wasteland.
Max found a type of surrogate family in that second film when he joined in with Pappagallo’s tribe, the defenders of an oil refinery. While there’s no romance in The Road Warrior, you could almost imagine Max and the Warrior Woman, played by Virginia Hey, becoming involved. There was even someone to replace Max’s dead son: the wild, mostly mute, boomerang-wielding Feral Kid, played by Emil Minty. But that family, too, ended with a kind of metaphoric destruction. After letting Max help them, the defenders betrayed him. The final scene had Max discovering that the tanker of oil he had been driving in the film’s climactic, explosive chase (which resulted in, among other things, the death of the Warrior Woman) was loaded with sand instead. The Road Warrior ended with Max driving off, the notion of belonging anywhere still elusive to him.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) made the family idea even more overt, with Max joining in with a group of child survivors of a plane crash in the desert, led by an older girl who acts as a surrogate mother. To get away from the bad guys at the end, they enlist the aid of a pilot raider and his son. The film is replete with references to family; consider the name of Tina Turner’s ruthless, yet still strangely maternal character, Aunty Entity. New variations on the family are being forged everywhere, it seems, in the Mad Max world, and Fury Road builds on that in surprising ways. But more on that later.
To be fair, this sort of theme is ubiquitous in the modern blockbuster — from Hawkeye’s secret domestic life in Avengers: Age of Ultron to the endless intoning of the word familia in the Fast and Furious films to Bruce Wayne’s dead parents in the Batman films. But rarely does one see the theme treated with as much perversity and imagination as it is in George Miller’s films. Over and over, in his cinema, families are threatened, destroyed, and fortified, and sometimes wildly different ones are rebuilt out of the ashes of the old.
In the director’s earlier masterpiece, 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil, a husband and wife (Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) learn that their son is suffering from ALD, a fatal nerve disease, and set out to find a treatment when doctors prove incapable of helping them. The film obviously has the nuclear family at its center, but Miller stretches and toys with the concept. Lorenzo’s Oil is shot not like a medical drama, but an opera crossed with a German Expressionist horror movie crossed with, well, a Mad Max film: The camera careens in and out of hospitals and schools and churches; it catches our characters and slows them down as they have searing, screaming emotional breakdowns; giant words like coma, paralysis, and death blast across the screen, like something out of cinema’s innocent silent age. At one point, in a bird’s-eye shot of a darkened Easter mass, lit by candle fire and accompanied by Russian choirs, Sarandon looks straight at the camera — staring down and imploring both God and the audience.
The result of such stylistic expressiveness is twofold. One, it places us in the minds of the characters; Miller’s camera is a defiantly subjective one. (In this film, the director’s medical background makes that somewhat surprising; yes, doctors are supposed to be compassionate and caring, but they’re also supposed to be calm and objective, and Lorenzo’s Oil is neither.) It also creates a world of heightened menace, where everything outside of the family unit becomes suspect. But that unit expands and contracts, too. Sarandon’s overachieving, determined Michaela Odone is devoted to her sick child but also domineering and judgmental toward others. As the film proceeds, Miller actually shoots her more and more like a spectral, supernatural presence. She can be ruthless, but it’s out of necessity: She shuts out anyone she deems unhelpful or dissenting — exiling them from the family when necessary, and at one point even threatening to shun Augusto (Nolte), her husband and Lorenzo’s father, when he expresses doubt about Lorenzo’s fate. But Michaela brings others in, too. By the end of the film, a kind of extended family has been created around Lorenzo, one that reaches out even to the various chemists in far-off cities and countries that help the Odones develop the oil that saves their son’s life.
Or consider the three women at the center of The Witches of Eastwick: Alexandra (Cher) is a widow, Jane (Sarandon again) has just finalized her divorce, and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) was left by her husband. The trio very overtly think of themselves as an alternative family. (They also happen to be witches, but they don’t know that yet.) Indeed, the unorthodox nature of their friendship seems to be a source of simmering resentment between them and the town at large — a resentment that comes to a head when the women strike up a relationship with a mysterious, demonic stranger named Daryl Van Horne, played by Jack Nicholson. The film comes alive when he seduces our heroines, by effectively entering their minds; in these moments, the film subtly shifts into what feels like an alternate reality. Defeating Daryl requires the women to reassert themselves. As he starts to divide the women up, they join forces to vanquish him. By the end, with the demon gone, the three witches are living together, with three new babies — all Daryl’s, alas, a fact that both unites them and tempers their triumph.
It’s understandable that a director as focused on families as Miller is would turn out to be an ideal director of kids’ films: Rebuilding families, and forging new ones, plays a key part in the Happy Feet films, as well as Babe: Pig in the City (1998). In the latter, the porcine protagonist — who already forms part of a unit with Farmer and Mrs. Hoggett — finds himself adrift in a big city and in a house full of other animals, including two chimps, one of whom gives birth to twins soon after the other animals arrive. The birth helps unify the bickering creatures and begins the process of turning them into something whose bonds run deeper. In the film’s climax, a breathtaking set piece reminiscent of the Thunderdome itself (the film might as well have been called Mad Max: Pig in the City), Mrs. Hoggett and several men wreak havoc by repeatedly chandelier-bungeeing into the posh crowd at a charity event as they fight over Babe. The scene ends, however, with everyone trying to save the twin baby chimps — a symbol, perhaps, of the fact that all throughout the film we’ve been watching a broader, more diverse family being born, one made up of chimpanzees, ducks, dogs, cats, humans, and others. By the end of the film, they’ve all moved to the Hoggetts’ farm and are living together in harmony.
(Spoilers abound for Mad Max: Fury Road from here onwards.)
Fury Road also revolves around families, some noble, some monstrous. Max himself is still haunted by the death of his loved ones, but this time, it’s a young daughter, not a baby boy, which is either a nod to the fact that this film isn’t meant to be a literal continuation of the earlier series, or a suggestion that Max has, in the intervening years, had another child. (There’s also a subtle hint, in the midst of battle, that this girl might actually be a vision of the future.) So how ironic that Max winds up in the clutches of messianic warlord Immortan Joe, who has modeled his feudal, fascist society around a perverted vision of the family. Joe harvests mother’s milk from lactating slaves and has imprisoned five wives in order to impregnate them. His half-life War Boys, bald and ghastly pale, even kind of look like babies. Some of his lieutenants are related to him. When Joe’s baby is stillborn on the battlefield, Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), his older musclebound, dimwitted son, yells out to the other warriors: “I had a brother! A little baby brother, perfect in every way!”
For Joe, this mad, hypermasculine vision of the family serves as a unifying myth. Throughout, he plays a part in his men’s lives akin to that of both a god and a patriarch. Among the War Boys, his gaze confers nobility and grace: Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the dying warrior who will eventually become an unlikely good guy, starts off coveting it. Later, however, as Nux bonds with Capable (Riley Keough), one of the fugitive Wives, he weeps over his failure in the eyes of Immortan Joe. In this scene, the boy doesn’t look like a soldier or minion; he looks like a child who has disappointed an abusive father. This moment is echoed near the end of the film when, knowing he’s about to die, Nux looks into the eyes of Capable, whom he’s fallen in love with, and whispers the dying cry of the War Boys, “Witness me” — reclaiming sacrifice in the name of a cult for a sacrifice in the name of love and family.
Much of Fury Road’s character tension comes from the scrappy way that Max, Furiosa, the Wives, and Nux learn to work together. The others are clearly better organized and functioning than they are. Watch, for example, the uncommon grace with which Miller shoots the Rock Riders — their motorcycles rising and falling in the background of shots like endless, undulating waves of madness. All throughout the first half, those chasing our heroes fight like well-oiled machines; we thrill at watching their coordination. There’s unity here — unity among the bad, and dissension among the good. But during the battle with the Rock Riders, our heroes finally begin to come together and work as a team. (Almost as if to symbolize this union, one of the Wives begins to give birth in the middle of the scene.)
As our heroes come together, the world around them begins to shift and assume life-giving qualities. The War Rig, the blunt and powerful vehicle that Furiosa and Max have been driving, actually gives off mother’s milk in the wake of Max’s first truly selfless act for the group. At this point, even the desert landscape takes on an almost sensuous quality — it’s no longer the dusty, alien scrub of a John Ford movie, but something closer to the smooth dunes of Lawrence of Arabia. This also coincides with the all-female tribe of the Vuvalini emerging from the desert to welcome them. The Vuvalini even bring with them new hope of life, in the form of a box of seeds and plantings that could, potentially, help lay the foundations of a new society. This tribe represents another of Miller’s alternate families – they’re called the Many Mothers, in contrast to Immortan Joe, who could easily have been called the One Father. (Let’s recall the Bullet Farmer’s words: This entire film is founded on Joe’s need to have healthy sons who can rule his twisted society.)
A life-giving, life-sustaining force, this group consisting of Max, Furiosa, the Wives, Nux, and the Vuvalini sets a counter-example to Immortan Joe’s totalitarian superstructure, which is exclusively male and founded on fear and death. And the film suggests that, by the end, Furiosa and the other women will transform the Citadel into a more equitable, matriarchal society. Max can have no part of it, of course, what with his being a perpetually wandering pseudo-Western hero. But he’s played his part, in deeper ways than we might at first realize. Consider the almost nuclear triangle of Nux, Furiosa, and Max. Nux was using universal donor Max as his human “blood bag” earlier in the film; Max’s blood thus almost literally brings the War Boy back to life. The connection is made complete when, at the very end, right after Nux’s sacrifice, Max saves Furiosa’s life by also giving her his blood.
It’s a nice bit of doubling, but it does more than that. “My name is Max,” Max tells Furiosa now, just before she passes out. These are his last words in the film. They were also, as it so happens, his first: “My name is Max. My world is fire, and blood,” he whispered in voice-over in the film’s opening scene. That initial expression of despair and nihilism is now recast as one of sacrifice and hope, as Max, however briefly and symbolically, becomes a good father again. Here, at long last, we’re reminded that blood — both real and metaphorical — can give life as well as take it.