The Art of the Car Crash: Mad Max: Fury Road

| Finn Odum |

A shirtless man lies on his back on the hood of a moving car, holding something flaming in his left hand. Other vehicles are visible in the background, moving across the desert.

Mad Max: Fury Road plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, January 22 through Tuesday, January 24. Visit for tickets and more information.

Warning: major plot spoilers below! Proceed at your own risk.

The car accident is one of the most abused tropes in cinema. It has more action film credits than The Rock, more Marvel cameos than Stan Lee. It’s a bullish punchline in an infuriating amount of comedies. When done poorly – and I believe it’s almost always done poorly – it is lazy, cheap, and unoriginal.

Yes, you say, but it’s just a movie. Why do they have to get a car crash right?

Because a fictional car crash does not abide by the rules of reality, it can be a powerful metaphor. The most beautiful car crashes are built on the balance of mortality and survival. They understand the real-life trauma that lies behind the wheel while taking advantage of the fiction in which they exist. They can kill onscreen and signify a new life. 

Not every movie is required to perfect the art of the accident. We don’t look to The Fast and the Furious for contemplative musings on death. Most of the car-centric cinematic canon is devoid of meaning; it’s chaotic noise, a cacophony of chrome set pieces designed to launch the Vin Diesels of the world fifty feet across the pavement. This includes the original Mad Max movies. I don’t mark their abuse of the crash against them. It’s discouraging, but not surprising.

But Mad Max: Fury Road is not its predecessors. It not only understands that car crashes are destruction and loss, but depicts the aftermath of moving forward. It paints an accident in bold sweeps of color and details, healing with a heavy brushstroke. Director George Miller designed the film to be one long continuous chase that highlights the importance of survival and the power of combatting oppressors. And while it is both of those things, it’s also a feature that has perfected the art of the car crash.

Miller understands that, at their core, cars are temporary weapons. He populates Max’s apocalypse with souped-up mechanical monsters breathing fire from their tailpipes. Cars are driven by sickly War Boys who in turn are powered by the blood of other living beings. Both the vehicle and its driver possess the ability to siphon life away from others. Even the war rig where most of the movie takes place is a death trap: the stick shift is a knife covered in bone, and guns are hidden everywhere. Every piece is a vehicle for destruction.

But fundamentally, you say, most car movies understand that they’re death traps.

Fact. What they don’t get is the zoom-out. The wide, long shot of the scenery around the vehicular armada. The focus on a pallid War Boy in front of a brilliant blue sky. The desert sand illuminating the crimson fire of a car crash. Miller designs a culture of violent vehicles and drops them into the most beautiful desert in film history. In this movie, the collision is not just a set piece, not just a beat that occurs on a destitute concrete road. It’s a burst of color on a canvas. It’s as vibrant as a bouquet of marigolds resting against the dusty earth.

A large, fiery explosion erupts in the center of the desert. There is a large vehicle inside it, and a car flying toward the viewer. Behind it, smoke billows toward the sky.

And then Miller zooms out and the explosions, the iron and ore, they’re all reduced to dots on the earth. They’re like ants. Harbingers of death in so many other scenes – but in these wide shots, these moments in between moments, they’re nothing more than specks of black and brown in a shimmering golden desert.

A large, wave-like sandstorm approaches the desert from the right. Several tiny vehicles approach it.

In the grand scheme of the universe, they are nothing.

The second thing Miller gets right is the meaning behind the art. When characters lose their lives, there is a sick signification to the cause of their demise. The young girl who haunts Max was killed by Immortan Joe’s war machine; she is the voice in Max’s head urging him to stop running. Without the painful memory of losing her, Max would not have turned back at the Green Place. The Splendid Angharad risks her life twice to help keep the rest of the women safe. Her death beneath the Warlord’s wheels is mourned, while also motivating her sisters to keep moving. Nux’s eventual death is a sacrifice, not for honor or victory like his fellow War Boys, but one made to keep Capable alive. It’s his redemption, his method of reclaiming the last few moments of life in the name of survival.

Miller focuses on the human who’s died and what their death means for the story. They are important, more important than the thing that killed them. Miller does not linger on gore or violence. Instead, the camera rests with those affected. Max, as he remembers those he lost. The Wives, as they watch their leader pass on. Capable, as she reads her name on Nux’s lips. A good fictional car crash understands that the real ones hurt people, and allows those who’ve been hurt to release their pain alongside the characters.

The perfected car crash is visually stunning and emotionally difficult. It is a cinematic cycle of destruction and survival. On the eponymous Fury Road, destruction caused by a motorized weapon opens a pathway to freedom. The Wives take back their autonomy by adapting to the environment that once held them back and conquering it. They are survivors, not victims. They do not absolve their trauma, but they do start to heal.

Furiosa is the best example of this cycle. She hails from the Green Place and was stolen as a child. She grows into a powerful figure who still sits under the thumb of a violent dictator. When she sees a chance to help save those in need, she takes it, understanding the risk and the violence ahead of them. Once she arrives and finds her home destroyed, a Green Place that is no longer green, she does not break. She mourns. She grieves. But importantly, she does not break. With Max’s support, she returns to the citadel, using the weaponized war rig against its old masters. Furiosa takes the world for those who cannot.

Furiosa (Charlize Theron) kneels in the desert sand, crying. A large mountain looms in the background.

In the wake of death and destruction, there is a possibility of rebirth and healing. That is what a car crash can mean. That is what can make it beautiful.

But wait a minute, you say, isn’t it insensitive to claim that something so violent has beauty?

No more insensitive than making a bus crash a punchline for a teen comedy.

Cinematic car crashes are painful. They are cruel and needless and occur in way too many movies – or maybe that’s just what you realize after you lose someone to a violent accident. When I was younger, a very good friend of mine was hit and killed while heading to our bus stop. For weeks I could not return there. Six years later and I cannot return there. I look both ways at least twice and can’t cross a street without a stoplight. I have to look up movies I’ve never seen to make sure they don’t contain a car crash – and if they do, I have to prepare myself and everyone around me for the inevitability that I might crumble. 

And yet, Fury Road comforts me. It is cathartic and calming. It reminds me that I and my loved ones will be okay, even in the face of destruction. It understands and depicts my pain. It recognizes that vehicles are both harbingers of death and ants to the universe. 

It is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen.

Edited by Matt Levine

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