“As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy; me, or everyone else.”

In a grizzly voice deepened by apocalypse, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) opens Mad Max: Fury Road with the story of humanity’s downfall. The camera is wide, painting Max against the backdrop of an empty desert. As looming as Hardy’s physicality stands, he feels small compared to the desolate expanse in front of him — a single grain of sand among countless others.

In its simplest form, Fury Road works as one long, extended chase scene, meticulously shoving character development and thematic resonance into tiny slits within the action.

Fury Road represents a cinematic achievement of both visual and ecstatic proportions. Yet, it’s the deeper, more fulfilling longings embedded in its characters that make George Miller’s new creation one of the year’s best films. Fury Road is a bull in a china shop that manages to create a masterpiece from all of the breaking, tearing, and cracking. As a narrative, it explores the line between humanity and the ensuing blinding desert around us. When men descend to dogs, is the path to meaning, purpose, and hope illusionary? Fury Road doesn’t seem to think so.

Fury Road is the fourth film in George Miller’s popular, though slightly uneven, “Mad Max” franchise. In Miller’s world, the earth lies seared from Armageddon, spilling over with roving gangs who savage and plunder from behind the wheels of vehicles only the apocalypse could provide. The strong survive by preying off the weak. Society is brutal, self-destructive, and distant from displaying any kind of sanctity for human life.

After the film’s introductory monologue, Max is captured by a band of thugs and taken to Citadel, a fledgling civilization ruled by self-proclaimed deity Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe’s rule is the antitheses of tender, but his control over the area’s water supply makes him a god to the people he oppresses. Joe also promises a bliss-filled afterlife to those who die valiantly in battle. “I live. I die. I live again,” is one soldier’s motto. Grace and mercy are foreign in Citadel. Honor is earned, not given.

Not long after Max’s incarceration, one of Citadel’s warriors, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), smuggles a group of Joe’s prized “possessions” out of the city. Joe retaliates by launching a counterattack, loading up his humorously bizarre war party — emphasis on “party” — to track her down. It’s not long before Max is thrust into the middle of the hunt, running headlong into Furiosa during the film’s first of many extended action sequences.

In terms of sheer intensity, Fury Road is the best action film in years — one that just might be a landmark work for the genre overall. Its narrative boasts a mixture of symphonic stunt work and lyrical choreography that turns the cast into something of smudged ballerinas gliding smoothly along the four corners of the screen. Miller’s visual and stylistic palette boasts the work of a mastermind building to his rapturous crescendo. The ever-intuitive conductor, Miller provides direction and editing that’s simultaneously frantic and graceful.

But the film isn’t wholly visual spectacle. Miller fills his universe with a host of odd and unusual characters (the flame-throwing guitar player was a crowd favorite at my screening), touching every tip of depravity. For individuals like Max and Furiosa, the question of whether their sacrifice is worth the cost lingers like heat radiating off the film’s sandy vehicles. Is the world crazy for its lack of ethical compass or are our protagonists equally insane for attempting to hold any kind of ground at all? How does one live a meaningful life amongst such bleakness?

Impressively, the story manages to examine each of these questions without pausing to take its foot off the gas. In its simplest form, Fury Road works as one long, extended chase scene, meticulously shoving character development and thematic resonance into tiny slits within the action. Hardy’s Max doesn’t have more than one or two pages of dialogue throughout the entire film, but every word and gruff is strategic. The poignancy of his character is etched into Hardy’s face. Every speckle of dirt, every piercing stare, tells a story of its own.

What might have easily turned into a bleak tale ending with the loss of personal and collective identity is instead a meditation on the struggle for meaning in a world that doesn’t seem to hold any. A group of women escaping Joe’s rule remind themselves (and their overlord) that “We are not things.” Max struggles with feelings of guilt after losing his wife and child. Joe’s warriors valiantly vie for their ruler’s attention, embarking on suicide missions in order to have their place among the “heroes.” In a society where the wall between individual and beast is blurred, each person, as Furiosa says, is “looking for hope.” They want to know they matter.

Miller takes pains to reveal the intrinsic value of all his characters. Theron’s Furiosa drives the story from its beginning to explosive end. She’s more than competent; at times, outperforming Max. During one scene, Max hands Furiosa his rifle because she can make the shot he can’t.

While the film features a collection of scantily clad woman in need of rescuing, they’re far from the paper-thin damsels in distress we usually find in post-apocalyptic universes. Rosie Huntington-Whitley, a professional model used mostly as eye candy in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, makes a surprise impression. She transcends her sex symbol persona, showing power and ingenuity. But contrary to some critics, Fury Road isn’t a film about Woman triumphing over Man. It’s a film about the thread of significance running equally through us all.

Even those under Joe’s grip are given a chance at redemption. While Joe lords over his people with false promises and an evil demigod-like status, the characters still pine for a gracious God who sees them in their despair. As one character prays during the film’s final act, she’s asked who she’s talking to, if not to Joe. “Anyone that’s listening,” the woman replies. While characters may not have a firm grasp on organized religion, they still long for a deity who would care enough to notice them in their pain.

For all its depictions of depravity, Fury Road offers us a world worth fighting for. When society descends into hell, the natural inclination is to escape, but what if we circle back to reclaim the damaged for good? Miller’s work, while grim, hints at the hope of redemption and significance.

In the film’s second act, the opening shot of Max against a wide desert background is repeated. This time, though, he’s looking at more than just the sand. He’s gazing into the distance at people who matter to him — and he matters to them, too. For a moment, he realizes that he’s not simply a “thing.”

He may be a single grain of sand, but he’s not crazy for desiring something more than survival.

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