George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is already the subject of a large and rapidly growing body of criticism. It is vast; it contains multitudes. It has been hailed as a masterpiece of action cinema, as a fiercely feminist text, as a brutal satire of the military-industrial complex, and an instant classic of pop art.
It’s an incredibly granular, visually dense film; books could be written – will be written, mark my words – about its thematic complexities. Already, the gravity well of critical thought is centering on the feminine and feminist elements of Fury Road, and justifiably so, but I want to buck the trend a little bit and sing the praises of one of the men, or rather boys: the hapless War Boy Nux, as essayed by Nicholas Hoult.
And in case you needed warning, here be spoilers.
Nux, for me, is the heart of the film, and easily the most identifiable character, even though he is also the most pathetic. The reason is simple: Nux, more than anyone else in the film, has an arc: we see him make choices, and we see him wear the consequences.
Which is not to say that the other characters – Max, Furiosa, et al – lack agency, but their chief decisions are made off-screen. When we meet them the dice, as Thunderdome’s Pig Killer might say, are rolling: Furiosa’s plan to abscond with the wives is already in motion, while Max’s stunted survival-at-all-costs philosophy is laid out for us, rather clumsily, in voice over narration. While our two heroes make tactical decisions as the film progresses, their character arcs, such as they are, follow a relatively flat trajectory.
Now consider the exploits of our boy Nux: that, my friends, is a character arc.
When we meet Nux, he’s a thoroughly-indoctrinated footsoldier in Immortan Joe’s patriarchal oligarchy, so determined to “…die historic on the Fury Road!” that he charges off into battle with Tom Hardy’s Max strapped to his car as a living blood-bag. When Nux leaves the film – and this mortal plane of existence – it’s in a deliberate moment of self-sacrifice, dying in a massive explosion to allow Max, Furiosa, and the wives to escape Rictus Erectus and the remnants of the Immortan horde. So how do we get from point A to point B?
Well, firstly, understand that Nux isn’t just a soldier in an army, he’s an acolyte in a cult; Immortan Joe isn’t just a warlord, he’s a god-king who isn’t so much obeyed as worshipped. Joe’s followers are a death cult; all their talk of Valhalla and dying in battle highlights the obvious parallels with the clichés of Viking culture, but there are also darker echoes of our current death cult du jour, ISIS: Nux and his fellow War Boys are effectively suicide bombers. And why not? After all, they’re already dying.
I’m going to quote now from an MD friend of mine who has asked to remain nameless, but who summarised the plight of the War Boys more eloquently than I ever could:
“Every warboy and every little painted kid is dying from leukemia or lymphoma.
“That’s what the nodules on their neck are. That’s what the words about the radiation getting into their bones is about. That’s what all this talk about half life is.
“That’s why they’re so skinny and lean. Bald and pale.
“That’s why when the organic says we’ve got a war boy running on empty he gets a blood transfusion. Because his bone marrow is full of cancer and he’s not making functional red cells any more.
“So when you see them ranting about I live and then I live again. Listen to those words. They’re desperate and fearful. Their chance to drive on the highways of Valhalla are predicated on requiring a certain something that many cancer cures are hocked as needing. Faith.
“If you do it right you get to live.
“So when Immortan Joe says ‘mediocre’ to Nux, Nux is crushed because he has been told his effort is not enough to warrant a second chance. His fate is sealed.”
Thus, when Nux chooses to aid Furiosa’s rebels after his moment of tenderness with Capable (Riley Keogh), he’s not just transferring his loyalty to a tougher authority figure – something he’s inclined to do, as we’ve seen from his behaviour around Max. No, this is Nux the Apostate, the Heretic, disavowing his lifelong religion. When Nux wrenches the wheel to the side in the film’s climax, dooming himself but saving his friends, he is under no illusions: the gates of Valhalla do not yawn wide. But he is, paradoxically, choosing life other death: defying Joe’s toxic theocracy and embracing the hope represented by Furiosa, the wives, and the Vuvalini.
There’s been plenty of debate over whether Max or Furiosa is the real hero of Fury Road, but the truth of the matter is that neither is. The heart and soul of the film is Nux, the fanatic who became a freedom fighter, and who died historic on the Fury Road.