The Faith of Fury Road 3


You prob­a­bly already know that Mad Max: Fury Road does many things well: edit­ing, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women, pac­ing, and a mix of prac­ti­cal and CG effects. But did you know that this film also does reli­gion well? That it treats faith not as just a piece of world-building or an antag­o­nist like many movies of this size and pop­u­lar­i­ty? It’s true. Let me show you how it works.

Warning: The fol­low­ing para­graphs speak about the char­ac­ters and plot of the newest Mad Max film in detail. Spoilers abound. Seriously, I straight up break down the plot of the film to make the arti­cle eas­ier to fol­low for the unini­ti­at­ed. Go see the movie, it’s good. 

In Fury Road our tit­u­lar char­ac­ter Max is cap­tured with­in min­utes of the film’s open­ing by a cultish band of sur­vivors called the War Boys. Max fails to escape, but is given anoth­er chance when he is taken again­st his will by the War Boys in pur­suit of a woman named Furiosa, who has stolen the wives of Immortan Joe, the War Boys’ lead­er. Eventually Max, Furiosa, the wives, and a War Boy named Nux meet the Vuvalini, a group of women at the edge of the waste­land. Together they lead a charge back to the War Boys’ citadel, in a sui­ci­dal attempt to take hold of it before Immortan Joe can catch them.

Now that that’s out of the way, lets talk reli­gion. First off, every piece of reli­gious sym­bol­ism in this film is easy to under­stand because it relies on famil­iar sym­bols and ideas. This is an old trick, and usu­al­ly it’s noth­ing more than just cre­at­ing an image in the audience’s mind about how the larg­er orga­ni­za­tion works with­out hav­ing to go into detail. To give some exam­ples from other works: we might not know every­thing about Unitology in the Dead Space games, but the name is close enough to Scientology that we can parse it eas­i­ly. The same goes with the Norsefire party in the graph­ic novel/movie V for Vendetta. The moment we see that red dou­ble cross, we know that oppres­sion, big­otry, and dogma are not far behind. But Fury Road doesn’t just give us sym­bols so that we can assume the details, it lets us see what these char­ac­ters believe based on how they act.

For exam­ple, let’s look at the sym­bol of Immortan Joe and the War Boys. A flam­ing skull on a steer­ing wheel is pret­ty fly as far as reli­gious icons go. We could just be pre­sent­ed with that and then move on; a skull on a steer­ing wheel equals mor­tal­i­ty and the impor­tance of vehi­cles in a harsh waste­land, we get it. But instead we are shown its impor­tance through the char­ac­ter Nux, one of the War Boys.

furyroad_posterIn the begin­ning of the film, as Immortan Joe and his army gear up to chase down Furiosa and the women she has taken from Joe’s vault, the War Boys first retrieve the wheels to their vehi­cles. These wheels are ador­ing an altar, a focus of prayer and wor­ship, and are them­selves reli­gious arti­facts. More than lit­er­al keys to Immortan Joe’s army of vehi­cles, these are a means of enter­ing Valhalla, an after­life promised by Immortan Joe, where every­thing is shiny and chrome, a sharp con­trast to the rust­ed waste­land the film inhab­its.

We are never just told any of this, we can see it. We see it in the way Nux gets angry and com­bat­ive when some­one else has the wheel to his car, we see how des­per­ate­ly he wants to join the hunt for Furiosa, to impress Immortan Joe, and get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to die for him and thus enter Valhalla.

These nods to reli­gion aren’t just world-building — though they do serve that pur­pose and it is won­der­ful — but they also drive the story for­ward. Nux’s reli­gious fer­vor, dri­ven by a mere glance from his sav­iour Immortan Joe, dri­ves him to the head of the pack hunt­ing down Furiosa. This leads to Nux get­ting entan­gled with Max as they encoun­ter Furiosa and the wives, and later Nux being cho­sen to ride with Joe, be blessed by him, fail him, and turn away from the way of the War Boys. These reli­gious sym­bols and rit­u­als are essen­tial: the plot of Fury Road could not pro­ceed with­out them, and they also make these waste­land reli­gions feel real.

There are no throw-away doc­tri­nes, no unim­por­tant sym­bols in Fury Road. The chrome paint the War Boys spray into their mouths moti­vates them as they chase our pro­tag­o­nists, their prayers show them sup­pli­cat­ing them­selves to Joe, empha­sis­ing that he is a tyrant. Religion in this movie isn’t just believ­able because it is easy to fol­low, it is believ­able because the reli­gions work in this film the way they work in the world: they unite peo­ple, provide mean­ing and rit­u­als that become part of people’s lives, and provide dif­fer­ent lens­es through which to see the world and the peo­ple in it.

Even Nux’s arc through the film feels like a gen­uine reli­gious con­ver­sion. Nux’s faith in Valhalla ini­tial­ly moti­vates him to chase down Furiosa, but he fails, fails with his sav­iour Joe watch­ing him, and despairs think­ing he will never be chrome. But after spend­ing time with the wives we can see him try­ing to find some­thing else to live for, we see him grow­ing closer with Max, Furiosa, and one of the wives named Capable. We do not under­stand his new world­view until near the end of the film, where before he sac­ri­fices him­self to allow his friends to sur­vive, he says “Witness me.” Until that moment this was only shout­ed by the War Boys as they sac­ri­ficed them­selves in fiery deaths fol­low­ing the will of Immortan Joe. But we can see that Nux isn’t doing this for Joe, he does it for his friends, for Capable. The act still has a reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance for him, it is still part of his world­view, but it has become some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing per­son­al, a code of a church with only one mem­ber: Nux.

But as heart­felt as this moment is, it is not the best exam­ple of how Fury Road does reli­gion.

Earlier in the film, after Furiosa and Max have final­ly escaped Immortan Joe’s reach, and Furiosa finds and rejoins the last mem­bers of the Vuvalini, she explains that her moth­er, also a mem­ber, had died short­ly after what I pre­sume was their cap­ture. As one, each of the women extend their hands as if to pick a piece of dust out of the air, and then clutch their hand to their chest. Now this is pure­ly spec­u­la­tion, but I’d be will­ing to bet all the money in my pock­ets that most peo­ple don’t need any expla­na­tion about what is hap­pen­ing with that ges­ture. Like the rest of the film, we are spared any ver­bal hand-holding. We are expect­ed, as peo­ple sur­round­ed by reli­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ism of all kinds, to be able to rec­og­nize an act of remem­brance when it is pre­sent­ed to us.

In my mind this is the biggest tri­umph of Fury Road: it is light on words. It lets the actors act, to show rather than tell how they feel and what they’re think­ing. It’s the same with reli­gion. We are never told what the war boys and Immortan Joe believe, we are shown them spray­ing paint in their mouths and scream­ing “Witness me!” The Vuvalini don’t exposit their ethics, we see it in their impec­ca­ble aim. Fury Road deliv­ers its reli­gious mes­sage so well because it treats the audi­ence no dif­fer­ent­ly than the inhab­i­tants of that post-apocalyptic waste­land: we can’t help but notice sym­bol­ism and rit­u­al in the world around us, to be drawn to it, to embrace it. It’s refresh­ing to see a film that is will­ing to put that much faith in its audi­ence.


Michael Elliott

About Michael Elliott

Michael is a writer at heart, though most of the time he doesn't act like it. He started as a columnist for The Cross and the Controller where he reviewed video games and talked a lot about the god in the machine. From there he contributed news posts and other articles to a few local sites: Geek Badge and Gamesparked. He is also the co-organizer of the WTF Game Jam (http://www.wtfgamejam.com). (Headshot credit: Andrew Ferguson