It’s hard to appreciate paganism properly. I can’t think of many convincingly pagan characters from motion pictures, because most cinematic pagans are nothing more than Republicans or athletes in togas. They talk like us, think like us, dress like us dressing like pagans, opine like us. Our ancient Greeks are suffragettes and our ancient Egyptians are Enlightened skeptics. We don’t believe in pagans because we can’t imagine the world much different than it is. The West is still a little stunned by the echoes of Christendom, although that echo is fading away with impressive speed. The spate of post-apocalyptic films issuing from Hollywood over the last fifty years or so suggests we’re not particularly optimistic about our brave new world, though films like I Am Legend or The Road rarely have the courage to ask honest questions about what a world wholly uninformed by the Church would look like.
A spirit of wildness, madness, zaniness, toxicity, debauchery and uncanniness pervades genuine accounts of paganism, and such a spirit is difficult to describe anymore because ingesting even a milliliter of the Incarnation puts unadulterated paganism light years away, though once you’ve seen authentic paganism just once, you do not forget it and forever recognize its fecal fingerprints. If you’ve not much first-hand experience with pagan literature, and have just a few minutes to do a little reading, try Book VII of The Aeneid in which the fury Allecto is unleashed to stir up desire for war. These passages are shot through with something unexplainable, unnatural— a kind of spoiled, gamey-flavored intellect— something that spontaneously curls the lower lip of the mind downward.
The latest Mad Max film fits neatly into the post-apocalyptic genre of films which has grown popular over the last forty years or so, though the admiration the movie ought to inspire in viewers grows not out of its success at imagining a world which has fallen from Christendom, but a fetid pre-Christian Dark Ages. As with most post-apocalyptic films, the Mad Max landscape is barren of vegetation, dry and dusty. In one scene, someone points at a lone tree and calls it “that thing,” a comment which equally betrays a loss of greenery as a loss of learning. Let alone no trees, there are no books about trees. Against such a landscape, the self-styled god Immortan Joe rules over a Babel-like city which looks like the inside of an engine. Joe wears a massive steering wheel belt buckle low on his waist, like a greaser’s cod piece, and the whole society is built around an unspoken worship of the automobile. I found this appropriately backwards. In a world where there’s nowhere to go, why not venerate transportation?
The plot is minimal, but not meager. Imperator Furioso (Charlize Theron in an Alien 3 Ellen Ripley do) works for Joe, but one day decides to quit and take Joe’s five wives with her to the Green Place, a matriarchal Elysium where Furioso was born and raised and then kidnapped while yet a girl. She picks up Max (Tom Hardy) along the way, and they fight Joe’s pursuing thugs. Between the two of them, Hardy knew what kind of movie he was in, though Theron wanted it to be something a little bit more profound. Max is haunted by visions of people he failed to save as a cop, though Hardy isn’t too stressed. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Hardy’s Ricki Tarr wept a genuine tear for a single lost lover. Max didn’t call for anything of the sort, and Hardy doesn’t force it. Theron, on the other hand, gets down on her knees and silently screams at the hot wind.
Many horror movies induce revulsion through showing the human body graphically torn apart, but director George Miller presents the body as a terrifying open thing. Obese wet nurses are milked like cows in an industrial farm. In another scene, a battlefield caesarean. Over the first half hour of the film, Max is strapped to the front of a car and forced to give a blood transfusion to a nutso henchman working for Joe. The body is a junkyard jalopy which can be scavenged for useful parts. Most action movies struggle to show the body as a fragile thing, and while plenty of nameless nobodies go hurtling through the air to their deaths in Mad Max, Miller regularly returns to fragile, squeamish images which keep the tension high and the mood uncomfortable.
I couldn’t claim Mad Max’s doomed future seems likely, let alone possible, though the violent inhabitants of Miller’s blasted desert are believably religious, and religion has been conspicuously absent from the glut of dystopic teen movies of the last decade. Immortan Joe is a quasi-priestly figure who has the power to deliver suppliants to the gates of Valhalla and his henchmen are willing to die on this promise. On the verge of death, they sloppily spray silver paint into their mouths and kamikaze. The ritual is never explained, though it seamlessly fits into the aesthetic. Other similarly intuitive gestures pepper the film and make it come alive.
Mad Max has a character arc, though it’s pretty predictable. In the exposition of the film, Max claims he only cares for survival as he munches a raw two-headed lizard, though by the end he’s putting his life on the line for other people. His own admiration for Furiosa, who is willing to die for five innocent girls, funds this change. And while a willingness to sacrifice yourself is Christian and great and all, it would be a little precious to make like the film has a lot invested in teaching the audience virtue. Max’s maturation is a token maturation, but if that doesn’t sound satisfying, chances are good you weren’t in line to see it last Friday night.
About half way through, the show runs out of gas. The heroes make it so far, then decide to turn around and go home. The early chase scenes achieve levels of spectacle which the late chase scenes can’t touch with a forty foot pole— not even a forty foot pole bolted to a car travelling at 90 miles an hour. The fiery scenes from the preview flare up and die down in the first act, aren’t rekindled later, and the film not only lacks a visually compelling third act, but anything having to do with the intriguing car cult established earlier. The ultimate triumph of the heroes and the failure of the villains isn’t fraught with much meaning or sufficient levels of explosion and fancy CG to make up for the lack of meaning. The final turns of the film are rather benign. Honestly, given that just about every scene in the film is a car chase, the editor might have simply dropped the better sequences into the ending, frontloaded the film with the mediocre ones, and I kind of doubt anyone would have even noticed.