Survivor. Lunatic. Hero.
Max is mad, and hoo-boy do we mean that in every sense of the word. He's angry—at everyone, it seems, but especially at anyone who trucks with his car. And he's stone cold crazy. It's the nasty and inevitable side effect of being a Lone Ranger in an empty world.
When we meet Max, we can barely even see his face. As director Miller put it in an interview for the DVD extras, "he's no different than a wild animal." Hardy adds in his own interview that Max is "monosyllabic, can't talk, doesn't know his own voice."
Plus, he's covered in dirt and, yes, hair. It's clear this dude hasn't seen the business end of a razor—or a shower head, for that matter—in quite some time. But he also probably couldn't give less of a hoot. After all, as he puts it:
"I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead."
Who are the living? Well that part's easy. If Max wants to survive, he's got to outrun any number of rampaging gangs ready to make swift work of him and his car. That's just life in post-apocalyptic Australia. But what about the dead? Why must Max run from the dead?
This, folks, is a harder question to answer. Here's what we do know: throughout the movie, Max is haunted by voices and visions. He sees a young girl, an old man, and a bunch of other people who all accuse him of abandoning them somehow. While we don't get many details beyond that, we can guess that at some point in his wanderings, Max came upon some people who needed his help.
And he failed them.
Those now dead people haunt him day and night, which sounds like nothing but a bummer. But these visions are also Max's prime motivator. At first, he runs from them. But as he gets to know Furiosa and her "righteous cause," he begins to see a way to make up for his past mistakes.
"A Raging Feral"
At Fury Road's beginning, Max is what the war boys call "a raging feral."
From that, we can gather than in this reality, it's not all that rare for a loner like Max to spend his days slowly becoming more and more nuts. There's gotta be more than one crazed loner around. We mean, think about it: the world as we know it has gone to hell in a handbasket, and it's not like Max has a lot of people to talk to.
He demonstrates his particular brand of crazy in a number of ways:
(1) He fights dirty. Check out how he fights his way through a billion war boys in the movie's first sequence. The dude really is reduced to only one instinct. We don't see him cleverly making a plan, or trying to charm his way out of the situation. He just rages.
(2) He doesn't talk. Mostly he grunts. When he does talk, it's to yell at people for stealing his car. And his blood. And for almost lancing him in the head with a thunderstick.
(3) He doesn't show remorse. He's totally ready to leave Furiosa and the women stranded in the desert. Clearly this is someone who's been living far beyond social mores and ethics.
Max Meets the Mujeres
Okay. So if Max has gone all the way 'round the bend at the movie's beginning, the question on everyone's mind should be, does he gain back his sanity by film's end?
What's not debatable, though, is that he does stumble upon some reasons to get his act together: Furiosa and the women. Once he throws his lot in with them, things start to change for our hero—and that's the arc we're interested in.
So when do things start to change exactly?
When the women first meet him, they're not exactly fans. Dag calls him "a crazy lunatic who likes to eat schlanger." We'll let you brush up on your Aussie slang on your own. Just know that's not exactly Dag's version of a compliment.
To be fair, Max doesn't make a polite entrance. He comes on the scene ready to steal their truck and shows himself capable of hurting them if necessary. Furiosa clearly doesn't trust him, but resigns herself to letting him ride along because she doesn't have a choice.
She learns to work with what she's given, though. A few scenes later, Furiosa asks Max to tell her his name, so that she'll know what to yell when she needs him to drive the rig. "Does it matter?" Max asks. Right there, we get a good sense of just how hard it will be for Max to reclaim his own humanity. For so long, his name hasn't mattered at all.
So why should it now?
From Zero to Hero
Still, this moment does mark a transition for our hero. Max and Furiosa are attempting to find a way to trust each other, now that their survival is mutually dependent. This newfound trust gets proven later, as they do battle with the canyon men. Sure, Max and Furiosa may not have epic conversations about the meaning of life and love and the latest Nicholas Sparks novel, but good golly do they know how to shoot guns. As they fend off the motorcycle gang of canyon men, they work seamlessly in coordinated concert, handing off guns and ammo when needed, and having each other's backs the whole time. It may not mean they trust each other. But they trust each other enough (to not get dead).
After this, Max begins to participate more directly in the decision-making. And he starts to talk more, to boot. He takes risks to ensure their mutual survival, like going after the Bullet Farmer and retrieving some guns and ammo to boost their defenses. He becomes a part of the team, such as it is. He even earns the highest compliment that Furiosa can pay when she calls him and Nux "reliable" to the Vuvalini.
Ultimately, though, his new connection to these women in general and Furiosa in particular isn't truly enough to get Max back on the road to redemption. That's gonna take something more. After they meet the Vuvalini, Max is ready to go his own way again. Furiosa pulls him aside, and the two have a telling exchange:
FURIOSA: Can I talk to you? I've talked with the others. We're never going to have a better chance to make it across the salt. If we leave the rig here, and load the motorcycles up with as much as we can, we can ride for 160 days. One of those bikes is yours. Fully loaded…You're more than welcome to come with us.
MAX: No, I'll make my own way. You know, hope is a mistake. If you can't fix what's broken, you'll go insane.
He might as well add "I should know" to the end of that sentence. Clearly, Max is still haunted by his demons—he couldn't fix what was broken, and he went insane. On some level, he thinks it's better to go it alone and to expect the worst from life.
Some Kind of Redemption
That all changes the next morning.
As Max watches the women head out across the desolate salt flats, knowing full well that they probably won't make it, he's struck by his visions again. Only this time, instead of running from them, he allows them to guide him.
Here, an important visual occurs in the movie. As Max flashes on his visions, the small girl who's been haunting him throws up her hand at him. Instinctively, he throws up his own hand to his forehead. Whatever this gesture signifies, at this point in the movie, we don't know. But we know it's that very same gesture that saves his life later in the final chase scene—and for a brief moment in Max's hallucination, we see a flash of the war boy who will eventually fire the very arrow that Max defends himself against.
Whether or not Max is aware of the significance of this gesture at this point, this moment marks a turning point for him. One minute, he's ready to go off on his own again. And the next, he's chasing after the women, convincing them to turn around, head back to the Citadel, and finally make a stand.
Maybe he finally sees his chance to make up for failing those folks who've been haunting him. Maybe he realizes he actually cares about the fate of these women and doesn't want them to die. Maybe—just maybe—he sees a shot at redemption.
That last theory sounds pretty promising to Shmoop. After all, here's how he puts it to Furiosa:
MAX: Look. It will be a hard day. But I guarantee you 160 days riding that way, there's nothing but salt. At least that way, you know, we might be able to, together, come across some kind of redemption.
Ah, so it looks like Furiosa isn't the only one who's after the R-word. What's important to realize is that Max has absolutely nothing to gain from throwing his lot in with these women and risking his life to get them back to the Citadel, especially given the fact that by the end of the movie, it's clear to us viewers that Max has no intentions of sticking around and going all domestic. He helps them, redeems himself, and splits.
For Max, this is less about suddenly connecting with other people again (although that totally does happen), and more about redeeming himself so he can move forward, finally free of having to "run from the living and the dead."
His connection to Furiosa helps him do that, but it's not like he's ready to settle down and make mad babies or anything.
Still, without Furiosa and her fierce band of femme fatales, Max probably wouldn't have much of a redemption arc at all. To point out the obvious, he helps the women overthrow their oppressors and take back the Citadel for themselves and all its citizens. But on a smaller, perhaps more meaningful level, he also achieves redemption—and sanity—through his relationship with Furiosa.
We see this most clearly in one of the movie's final scenes. As the War Rig heads back to the Citadel, having vanquished Immortan Joe once and for all, Furiosa is in bad shape. She's got a would-be-fatal wound in her side, and she's failing fast. Good thing Max is a universal donor, right? As he takes care of Furiosa, he works gently but quickly, clearly distressed that she's at death's door. And as he donates his blood in a last ditch effort to save her, he leans over and whispers,
"Max. My name is Max."
What does that tell us? A lot, as it turns out. See, Max has finally found someone with who he shares a strong enough connection with to share his name—a name he once thought didn't matter. It's the final indication that he has come back to himself—that he can face himself after all of his past mistakes.
A Sidekick in his Own Flick
Fun story: when Mad Max: Fury Road burst on the scene in 2015, men's rights groups stirred up a bit of a controversy. We know, right—what's controversial about a critically acclaimed and crowd pleasing action movie?
For some Mad Max fans, all it takes is women...talking. Aaron Clarey, a writer for a prominent men's rights website called Return of Kings, sums it up like so:
Charlize Theron kept showing up a lot in the trailers, while Tom Hardy (Mad Max) seemed to have cameo appearances. Charlize Theron sure talked a lot during the trailers, while I don't think I've heard one line from Tom Hardy. And finally, Charlize Theron's character barked orders to Mad Max.
Nobody barks orders to Mad Max.
As he puts it a few lines later,
Hollywood has the audacity to remove the namesake of a movie franchise called MAD FREAKING MAX [emphasis theirs], and replace it with an impossible female character in an effort to kowtow to feminism.
For many men's rights viewers, the problem with Fury Road is that it relegates the titular character to the role of sidekick in his own movie. There's definitely an argument to be made in that direction—after all, Furiosa's redemption arc rivals Max's for both screentime and thematic significance. She makes decisions, and Max is often just along for the ride. But that's not necessarily a problem. Arguably, it's a smart way to revolutionize the action movie genre for the 21st-century world. Arguably.
And whatever you do argue, we can't deny that even if he is a sidekick, Max absolutely gets his own shots at the spotlight throughout the movie. His heroic resourcefulness achieves a whole heap of awesome:
(1) He drives like a boss through the canyon and helps Furiosa fend off the attacking motorcycles.
(2) He single-handedly takes down the Bullet Farmer.
(3) He convinces the women to fight for what's theirs, rather than risk their lives in an empty desert.
(4) He finally dispatches Rictus, the unbeatable giant baby.
(5) He saves Furiosa's life.
So even though in many ways, this movie is Furiosa's, it's not like Max is a shrinking violet.
P.S. For more on the issue of Mad Max, feminism, and all that jazz, check out Imperator Furiosa's "Character Analysis," and the "Women and Femininity" theme.
Tom Takes Up Mel's Mantle
For those new to the Mad Max franchise, it might not seem like that big a deal that a Brit named Tom Hardy is the star of the movie. But trust Shmoop: it's a big deal. For many viewers, Mel Gibson—the star of the first three movies in the franchise—was Mad Max. And to have someone else in the role takes some adjusting.
In fact, Mel Gibson was originally considered for Fury Road, but George Miller decided Max should be played by a younger actor. Sorry, Mel, but to be fair, Gibson was 59 years old when the movie came out. But according an interview with Tom Hardy, Mel Gibson willingly handed over the Mad Max mantle by taking the new Max out to lunch. Cute, right?
In any case, it's quite clear that Hardy had some big shoes to fill. Which raises the question: what does Tom Hardy bring to the role?
As director Miller puts it, "Tom has this sort of wildness." Yeah, that sounds about right. He adds, "There is that similarity between Tom and Mel. Very masculine, at the same time there was a softness, capable of gentleness as well." In Miller's vision, and in Hardy's performance, Max is both crazy and kind.
We see that in Hardy's small gestures, like when he gives Angharad a knowing but subdued thumbs up after she survives a brush with death, or the look in his eyes as he tells Furiosa that "hope is a mistake." Hardy reminds us that while Max may have gone "feral," he hasn't lost his humanity. It's just hidden under layers of desert grime.