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.
In 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.