[spoilers] We Are Not Things: The Themes and Imagery of Mad Max: Fury Road [spoilers]

Warning: This post contains many plot spoilers for the film Mad Max: Fury Road. Please don’t read any further if you don’t wish to learn of major plot points and themes in this wonderful film.

We (Richmond & Andy) were lucky enough to catch Mad Max: Fury Road in Thailand a few days before most of the English speaking world. Here’s a quick brain dump on the themes and imagery in this fantastic film.

Also, here's some awesome art from Weigy
Also, here’s some awesome art from Weigy. Check out more of his work at:
http://weigy.tumblr.com/

Mad Max: Fury Road is a story about human beings fighting against objectification in the most literal interpretation of the word. The desolate earth of the post apocalypse is a cruel place where simply surviving is a constant struggle. In this harsh environment people have  been reduced to objects valued only for their utility.

The film opens with Max being caught by Joe’s henchmen as he is very literally driven to madness by hallucinations of past failure. Max is stripped down, shaved, and his back is tatooed with his nutritional information. We hear from the excited chatter of one of the captors that Max is a universal blood doner, which is important to the plot and also has great symbolic value (more on this later). He is very literally reduced to a commodity to be consumed.

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We are introduced to Immortan Joe looking down on high from his mountain citadel upon hordes of disheveled worshippers. The peaks of the citadel are covered in lush greenery seen nowhere else in the wasteland, the only way to reach there is by a gigantic lift powered by children turning cogs. Within the citadel are stables full of women milked like cows to provide nutrition for a chosen few. Immortan Joe himself is part machine, kept alive by a breathing aparatus. In this world, the common person has been reduced to a literal cog in a machine while Joe sits on top and is very literally kept alive by this machine.

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Just like Lord Humongous, Immortan Joe is also associated with military imagery

Our attention is then turned to Imperator Furiosa. Her name is almost certainly a reference to the classic epic “Orlando Furioso” which roughly translates to “Mad Roland.” She is a bad ass wasteland warrior like ‘Mad’ Max.

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Furiosa is also ‘part machine’ with her prosthetic left arm. Her missing limb is painted on the left side of her ‘war rig’. Her mission in this story is redemption, to regain that humanity.

mad_max_fury_road_art_eater_furiosa_war_rig

Initially Furiosa is on a mission to retrieve gas, but is secretly making a daring escape with Immortan Joe’s wives, also referred to as “breeders”, as they were chosen by Immortan Joe  solely to create bear him progeny. When Joe learns of Furiosa’s deception and rushes to their room it’s shown that he keeps them in a humongous bank vault. They are his most precious “property”. The audience can see that before leaving, they painted a wall with the message “WHO STOLE OUR WORLD?” and “WE ARE NOT THINGS.” This is a very blunt statement of the movie’s theme of human objectification.

mad_max_fury_road_art_eater_Immortan_Joe_Wives_quote_we_are_not_things

In the age of social media we tend to think of objectification as something that only happens to women, but Fury Road is an exploration of how anyone and everyone regardless of gender can be turned into a ‘thing’ and robbed of their humanity. It’s also a story of why that humanity is worth fighting for.

Next we are introduced to Nux, another central character. Nux is a “War Boy” one of many identically shaved and painted soldiers that make up Immortan Joe’s army. In their short lives they want nothing more than the approval of their god/father figure Immortan Joe and willingly aspire to become ‘things’, vehicles for Immortan Joe to control. The War Boys huff silver paint which stains them chrome like their vehicles. Nux takes this vehicular cult practice even further by scarring the form of a car engine on his chest.

mad_max_fury_road_art_eater_nux_engine_scar_tattoo

Before War Boys head off to war they are given wheels in the form of Immortan Joe’s symbol, which act as booth a steering wheel and key to their vehicles. A steering wheel is a symbol of control. Keys are a common symbol of agency (“key to my heart” etc). Their lives are in the hands of Immortan Joe who decides when they can take the wheel or not.

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War Boys are mentioned to have a drastically reduced lifespan with Nux ill and near the end, so he rigs Max to his vehicle to serve as a source of blood transfusion to extend his life just a bit longer to fight in the service of Immortan Joe.

A thrilling chase ensues and Nux and Max eventually catch up to Furiosa and crew. During these scenes Max is connected to Nux by chains and also by the blood transfusion tube. There is great symbolism in this. Humans are social creatures. Like it or not, even in the post Apocalypse we are bound to one another. This is where the best and worst of humanity arises. Chains that bind and enslave. Blood that sustains and gives life. This is a perfect visual summation of everything that happens in the film.

Max is able to find a bolt cutter to sever the chains. He keeps the blood transfusion equipment, cos hey this is the post Apocalypse, people are conditioned to constantly scavenge. But also, this foreshadows Max’s choice of compassion over cruelty.

As the pursuit continues it’s actually Nux who goes through the most development and fulfils the traditional hero’s journey arc. Nux’s maddened devotion gains the approval of his god/father Immortan Joe. A simple look from him means the world to this idealistic young boy (his jealous friend insists “he wasn’t looking at you, he was just scanning the horizon!”). Nux is not a bad person, he just craves approval and wants meaning to his life. He believes he will find that meaning in dying for his master.

When Max and Furiosa first meet, they see each other as potential adversaries and wind up wrestling over a gun. Max ejects the bullet catridge, and Nux immediately grabs it and exclaims “I got it! I got it!” because he’s just so excited to be helpful. There’s no cruelty in him, he just wants approval.

Max and Furiosa eventually join forces (though Max still refuses to give his name so Furiosa calls him ‘Fool’) while Nux fails in several attempts to thwart their plans.

In some of the oldest known tarot cards, The Fool is known as "Il Matto" which means "The Madman" and often represents the protagonist in storytelling
In some of the oldest known tarot cards, The Fool is known as “Il Matto” which means “The Madman” and often represents the protagonist in storytelling

When he is personally addressed by Immortan Joe and given one of his pistols to finish off Furiosa, Nux screws up and sees his master looking upon him with contempt. To Nux, this is far worse than death, he is completely drained of his desire to fight after losing the approval of his god/father figure.

Nux is later found cowering and crying in the back of the war rig by one of Immortan’s escaped ‘wives’, Capable, who takes pity on him, possibly the only compassion Nux has ever experienced in his life. He is quickly and simply won over to their side.

In the end Nux is still committed to the idea of ultimate self realisation through utility and death, but there’s an important distinction: this is a cause he chose for himself. He dies a human with free will and not a tool.

In the final extended showdown Furiosa exclaims to Immortan Joe “remember me?” regaining and asserting her once stolen humanity, before Joe’s artificial face is torn off along with Furiosa’s artificial arm. Immortan Joe was kept alive by machines, created a society where people are treated as machines, and with him gone the machine-society he created can be dismantled.

Furiosa is also badly wounded in this fight. It seems she won’t make it, but she is saved by Max who still has the blood transfusion tube (. His blood, a literal product of his humanity is able to keep Furiosa alive. In regaining her own humanity, she has helped Max recover some of his own. Max tells her his name for the first time.

Furiosa returns home a champion. She lays the lifeless body of Immortan Joe on the ground, and the people declare her their new ruler. Her title was imperator. In its earliest usage, this word denoted a general in the Roman army. Eventually “imperator” grew into the word “emperor.” Thus Furiosa fulfills her destiny and Max disappears into the crowd.

Fury Road is a story with few words and great depth. DEEP visual storytelling at its best. There’s much much more to it, but this is what we got out of Fury Road on our first trip. We’ll definitely be returning to this film many times down the road. Thanks for reading. And thank you George Miller for making such a fine film!

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Author: Richmond

I am a professional game artist who wants everyone to love art as much as I do!

23 thoughts on “[spoilers] We Are Not Things: The Themes and Imagery of Mad Max: Fury Road [spoilers]”

  1. A man in bondage who’s blood is universally beneficial.? Tormented by his own convictions in the wilderness? Max is their Christ. Leading them out of the desert to redemption. Full circle back to where they started. Eden. More than anyone else, he is the true heir to the throne. But has nowhere to even lay his head. He is the most sane person there, but considered completely insane by their standards. Appears, assists, then disappears. He consumes reptiles.

    Joe is the false messiah. Hoarding life giving water that’s brought out of stone. Aqua-cola being basic life turned into a commodity. Putting the garden on a untouchable pedestal. Going into the desert to retrieve what he calls “property.” Only to be consumed by his own greed, like pharaoh. His followers constantly seeking credit for their deeds. Payment. Making sure someone “witnesses” their acts before they do them. A vanity based belief system. Hence the chrome anointing the lips. Joe covets immortality and an image of pure flesh. Outwardly he tries to create that image. When in reality he is barely clinging to life in a lepper-like state. His military garment being transparent.

    Furiosa is between the two. Missing a part of herself. Mostly human, her man made left hand is her weakness. Looking for Paradise, hope, but in the wrong places. In need of a guide. Only to have to face everything she was running from. I’m also convinced that she was a discarded bride of Joe’s. Literally and figuratively. “Remember me! I’m your former driver!?” Makes no sense. However “Remember me! I’m the bride you used and abandoned!”Makes total sense. Also would explain why she felt so bad for Joe’s brides. Now Joe will drown in the irony of the situation. Since he’ss out there looking for “lost brides.” He found the ultimate lost bride in Furiosa. Removing a veil, Joes mask. Lost his life, mask and kingdom. All at that moment. Which were all the same thing. Furiosa and Knux are both redeemed by Max guidence and saved by Max’s blood. Max leaves wanting no part of their kingdom.

  2. Good stuff.

    Minor thing that irked me:
    Nux grabs the “magazine”, not a cartridge (further bit of trivia that’s unrelated to your post but relevant to being pedantic about firearm vocabulary: a “clip” goes into a magazine – rarely relevant these days but worth a mention!).

    A cartridge is one bullet (e.g. like the one that Max uses to load the rifle that is being used as a tribal staff in Mad Max 3).

  3. Thank god there’s ONE page talking about symbolism and not just MRA’s and feminists fighting :\ Something I was particularly interested in was the significance of the “breeders” names: Toast the Knowing (particular interest in ammunition), The Splendid Angharad (the pregnant one who dies later), Capable (the redhead who shows Nux kindness), The Dag (blonde, blue eyed, foulmouthed? Glad to be rid of her chastity belt) and Cheedo the Fragile (who wanted to return to the citadel).
    I was wondering if in some way each of them embodied a human trait that is necessary to survive in the new world order, maybe the will to fight, fertility, empathy, primal feelings and a need for stability? Thoughts?

  4. Four horsemen anyone?

    Immortan Joe as the White horse, infectious disease, righteousness and evil.

    The Bullet Farmer as the Red horse representing war.

    The People Eater representing Famine.

    Mad Max is the Pale Rider. Representing death. I think the first 3 are pretty clear. I’m still trying to figure out how Max is death other then most everyone dies around him. Maybe that’s why he leaves at the end? He knows that death follows wherever he stays, or should i say wherever he is.

  5. Jackpot :D
    This was exactly what I was looking for. I just saw the movie yesterday, but it was the German version so I lost a little of the nuance in the dialogue; on the other hand, it did make the movie even more badass.

    One question, is Immortan Joe alive during Thunderdome and Road Warrior?

    Brad Brevet wrote an interesting analysis connecting the lone War Pup Scrooloose joining the Waiting Ones to Immortan Joe being overthrown. However, it seems ambiguous to me because I can’t rule out the possibility that Scrooloose just wandered off/got separated from the horde before the usurpation.

    http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/is-scrooloose-in-mad-max-beyond-thunderdome-one-of-fury-roads-war-boys/

    Can anyone establish the chronological order of the 4 movies? Is there any? :D

    k thx

  6. Excellent analysis. I appreciate that you picked up on the tarot imagery. It’s worth noting that Max has a dog in The Road Warrior, strengthening the image of The Fool across the series (in the Rider Waite tarot, The Fool has a small dog following him). And Max is standing at the edge of a cliff at the beginning of Fury Road, further recalling The Fool.

    There’s other tarot imagery that is also very deep (I think it’s an article in and of itself that I might try to write). Max is also supposed to represent The Hanged Man at one point if not more, and at times he is hanging inverted as well as right side up. Similarly, Immortan Joe’s Citadel may well also be The Tower, inverted as well as right side up.

    Additionally, the appearance of a legless man at the end of the movie calls to mind the handless and footless dwarf from Jodorowski’s The Holy Mountain, who symbolizes the Five of Swords (defeat).

    The prominence of this last image makes me wonder about the influence of The Holy Mountain on Fury Road, and that may be another fertile subject to write about.

    1. A couple more thoughts:

      Immortan Joe and his two henchmen (from Bullettown and Gas Town or whatever they were called) might symbolize The Chariot.

      The ever present wheels in the movie, rubber and steering, might be ever-present Wheels of Fortune.

      I’m trying to think of whether the brides might recall the Three of Cups.

      1. Will thanks for your thoughts! This is actually precisely what Andy and I are researching right now. Our followup is going to be about the Tarot card imagery in Fury Road! Thanks for your help!

        1. That’s great to hear – I look forward to reading what you guys come up with and comparing it to my own notes. Please let me know if you would like any other suggestions – I’m happy to lob a few more thoughts your way like War Boys riding bendy poles (Wands?).

        2. Another card to note that hasn’t been mentioned (that I’ve seen); justice. There’s a point where one of the head “bad guys” that goes blind says something along the lines of “I am the scales of justice.” And his posture and the way he’s holding his guns really reminded me of the card before even finding this discussion.

  7. I HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT THIS MOVIE

    Some things:
    – the color white, the things it represents, what things that are white that become not-white over the course of the movie, what things are white at the end of the movie

    – the Bullet Farmer and the aristocratic dude being almost newspaper caricatures of the military-industrial complex. You could pull and almost arbitrary amount of symbolism/allegory out of them.

    – Immortan Joe and how he is a decaying, diseased man who practically dons a breastplate that lets his clothes not irritate his boils/tumours/whatevers, but how it very visually makes him more macho: sculpted muscles, perfectly smooth and unblemished “skin”, war medals, etc.

    – the whole way in which Max conducts himself with a gun during his early confrontation with Furiosa. With barely any words, he gets so much across and demonstrates how somebody used to extreme viciousness gets other dangerous people to do things while minimizing the threat to himself.

    – the way the speed of shots is controlled. One of my friends pointed out that this is one of the few action movies where action is SPED UP, rather than always being slowed down for the audience to appreciate the destruction. There are some key slow-mowed shots, but they are the exception and not the rule.

    – the dichotomy of machoness shown in Rictus. He is huge, has unblemished skin in spite of always being out in the desert with a bare chest (and having none of the scarwork on him that others do), a sculpted physique, a huge machine gun, but needs a machine to help him breathe. Like Blaster, there’s a certain childishness to him, and his expressions of frustration. But like Humongous, his voice is smooth and his sentences polished when he expresses his grief for his dead baby brother. There is a long history of huge musclemen powered by horrible machines (irony: Bane was played by Tom Hardy), but Rictus is very memorable.

    1. So much to talk about. We’re working on a followup article bout the tarot card imagery. Also just want to do another brain dump! Rictus was a very interesting character. Physically imposing, but he has a childlike mind. I mean, he’s introduced drinking breast milk, which is 1) funny 2) sets him up as childish 3) explains why he’s so goddamn jacked in the post apocalypse (GENIUS!). It’s interesting to note that Immortan Joe is driven by his need to create an able heir. His two sons are imperfect. Rictus is physically strong but weak minded (and also has breathing problems just like his father) while the other son (i forget his name) seems sound of mind but physically very weak. That’s why Rictus made such a fuss over how he had a little brother who was “perfect in every way.” Also interesting that the baby is never shown clearly, maybe fitting into this theme that in this world you have to fight to claim your personhood. ALso interesting that they clearly show the umbilical chord getting cut. Which recalls all the other images of chains and blood transfusion tubes. I mean, Max is Nux’s “blood bag” which recalls an embryo! Ah! So good! So fluid! I gotta get some work done, then I’ll dive back into this!

  8. Thanks for a great article. I saw theovie last night and really agree with a lot of your points.

    However, I would like to add something to the discussion. I believe there was more to the chrome paint than just huffing. To the War Boys, chrome is a part of their “religion”.
    (Max’s captured car is polished down to chrome)
    (Nux: ” So shiny; so chrome”. )

    Therefore, the War Boys ‘anoint’ themselves with chrome in a ritualistic manner for their trip to Valhalla, to stand out more to Immortan Joe. Like a Christian dipping their fingers in a font. Using that metaphor, when Immortan Joe anoints Nux with chrome it’d be like getting a personal blessing from the Pope. Which is how Nux acted.

    Not to tear down your article at all; I very much enjoyed it!! I came away from that movie intrigued by the War Boy’s society, their tribal warrior-style scarification and body painting, and form of religion. I hope the next movie is a anthropological documentary about their society. Honestly :)

  9. I love thissss.

    One thing I wanted to mention though: when Furiosa says “remember me” to Joe, I didn’t think of it as a question as much as a clever twist on the “witness me” phrase that the war boys said whenever they were about to martyr themselves. I’m still not sure what the significance of the change is, but I bet there’s gotta be something there!

    1. My take on the “witness me,” vs. “remember me” divergence is that it has to do with their concept of the afterlife. “Witness me” is what you say to the living before you die. “Remember me” would be more the sort of thing you would say as a reply to that. The living want the dead to remember them in Valhalla. Furiosa is saying this to Joe in mockery of this religious mantra, or so it seemed to me.

  10. Thank you for the thoughtful analysis. I generally do not see movies multiple times, especially at the theater, but just finished my second viewing of Fury Road. I was very moved by the symbolism and had hoped that others were as well. The connection you’ve made with the steering wheel is a very insightful observation. The steering wheel metaphor appears a number of times throughout the film. In one of the scenes the wheel is ripped off the war rig and Furiosa fashions a makeshift wheel for Max. Later, Max recovers a wheel from The Bullet Farmer and gives it to Nux. I hadn’t noticed the importance until reading this. I may be reaching a bit here but I also wonder if the film itself might not be a metaphor for the creative process and the prominent characters and groups representative of the human psyche. Fury Road has a lot to say and I would think that it was a labor of love 30 years in the making for Miller. Im curious as to why it took him so long to make it?

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