The denizens of the world director George Miller created are a mix of rugged survivors, brainwashed berserkers and beaten peasants. It is a fever dream of bright colors, mutilations and explosions, but what sets it apart from typical blockbuster fare is the gravity of its message and the trauma these extremes inflict on the film's characters.
Mad Max opens with the titular character, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), being abducted by a road-warrior gang. His blood is type O-negative—he's a universal donor—so his captors turn him into a "blood bag" for the seriously ill Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When one-armed road pirate Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) absconds with the harem of berserker leader Immortan Joe (played with amazing intensity by Hugh Keays-Byrne), a psychotic caravan including Joe, Nux and Max gives chase.
It's in the midst of this chaos that Mad Max's characters crackle. Hardy's few lines—"Hope is a mistake"—are more than enough to reveal him as a man reduced to survival instinct, but Theron's Furiosa steals the show. She's a ruthless pirate on the outside but, on the the inside, just wants to go home. The moment when even that is taken from her is wrenching.
On Furiosa's team are emancipated concubines Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) and The Dag (Abbey Lee), referred to collectively as the "five wives."
They're trussed up in a big rig and must fend off Joe's forces, which include Rictus Erectus (a grossly oversized Nathan Jones) and other characters like People Eater, Bullet Farmer and Organic Mechanic. Masculine hyperboles all, they hose down their teeth in chrome spray paint before dying in combat, demand other warriors "witness" them going to "Valhalla" and otherwise behave like hormone- and peer-pressure- crazed teenage boys.
It's more than that. Everything, from the characters to the cars they drive, is in service to the idea that a whole society can—and often does—resign itself to hardship rather than acknowledge its flaws and struggle to address them.
In a telling early scene, Immortan Joe demonstrates his power by releasing a cascade of water from a well. As his peasants scramble over each other to collect it, Joe warns them not to become too attached to water lest its absence makes them "resentful." It's a clear case of the powerful leveraging a life-saving resource against the weak: 1 percent-ism taken to its logical conclusion.