Mad Max has been rattling around in my head since I saw it last week, not because of the glorious stunts and kinetic action (although they were astonishing) but because of the trio of main characters, Max, Imperator and Nux, and how their respective emotional needs impacted the overall story.
Before I get to that, let me take you back to Tinker Tinker Soldier Spy for a second. In Tinker Tailer, George Smiley’s motives are largely driven by internal emotions that he keeps in check. It leads to a subtle and nuanced performance from Gary Oldman, but perhaps the story suffers from the seemingly detached nature of Smiley’s personality. Contrast this with the two characters in the film that do express emotion, played by Mark Strong and Tom Hardy. Hardy arguably ends up stealing the show because he provides the emotional substance that’s lacking in George Smiley’s outlook.
In Mad Max, Hardy’s role is more like George Smiley: driven by internal emotions that he keeps in check. It’s left to the two other characters played by Theron and Hoult to externalise their emotional needs, which in turn push the story forward in a more prominent fashion.
WITNESS ME! SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
Imperator (Theron) literally drives the story at the beginning as she takes a left turn in her war rig, taking Immortan Joe’s cherished brides with her. Nux goes in hot pursuit, using Mad Max as his blood bag. At this stage, Imperator and Nux have the key visual and vocal narrative hold on the story. Max, on the other hand, is motivated by one internal/external desire: survival (something he tells us via voiceover).
I’ve read some reviews and online chatter about Imperator being the real protagonist of this film, but I disagree. Max is our narrative point-of-view, and he is the one who influences the story at its key stages. As his inner need is also his external purpose, he is forced to react to the situation he finds himself in rather than be the cause of the action. Some reviews have questioned the logic of him teaming up with Imperator in the first place, some shrugging it off as ‘it doesn’t matter’, but actually there’s a definite plot logic in place: Max wants to survive, and teaming up with Imperator is the only way to achieve it.
However, Imperator and Nux’s external motives are more satisfying to watch and experience. In comparison, Max has a linear storytelling arc as he gradually changes his inner/external cause from ‘survival’ to ‘redemption’. But he keeps his emotions in check, not speaking very much, leaving only the audience to glimpse his haunted memories of his dead daughter. Imperator gets a much grander display of emotion. She collapses with grief as she discovers her Green Place has been destroyed. She also explains her backstory which helps define her current motives. And then there’s Nux, glorious Nux, who steals the show with his defining character arc from ‘war boy’ canon fodder to noble hero. Witness: Nicholas Hoult’s incredible performance.
Mad Max is the stoic hero, the mysterious loner, his emotions kept in check, driven by internal desires. This kind of protagonist can be difficult to effectively push a story forward in a satisfying manner, and that’s why Imperator and Nux help enormously to fill in the emotional blanks. It may look like Mad Maxine: Furiosa Road but don’t be fooled, this is Mad Max’s film all day long.