Every shot is a choice, you choose to show one thing rather than another, but you also choose to show that thing in a certain way versus another. A word ‘shot’ can mean two things in a film, as it can be a literal shot fired by one of the characters, or the frame used to capture that shot. This linguistic connection implies that filmmaking is inherently related to a form of violence, as it cuts a landscape or narrative into digestible pieces. This likewise means that a character undergoes two forms of abuse in a violent scene. They are literally attacked in the narrative but also formally dissected by the camera. Where does that leave us as viewers? What does it mean to witness a character’s death in a film?
Mad Max Fury Road knows when to cut literally and stylistically. While it is a spectacular film in every way, I want to focus here on the fascinating way it treats on-screen and off-screen violence.
My favourite thing in the film is the phrase “Witness me”. It’s what the War Boys call out just before they sacrifice themselves for Immortan Joe. It implies that the only way to find meaning in death is to look right at it. Witnessing is a way to respect the moment of death, but also to make sense of death. I believe that filmmaking adheres to a similar logic, especially as killing a character on-screen is an easy way to engage your audience.
We see so many people die in the movies. This perhaps gestures to our culture’s fixation with the moment of death and our need to make it something epic and frightening. Death must be a spectacle in order to compete with our existentialism. It has to be bigger than us so it can add meaning to the human condition. We need to see it on the big screen so it can overwhelm our everyday life. That way, it can look as big and as frightening as it feels.
That said, there is something more shocking and impactful about an off-screen death. It is private and frightening because we do not know the details. Apocalypse films are a good example of this, as some of the most effective are those where we do not know how the world ends. Rather than fixating on the moment of, these films focus on the aftermath and the need to survive. They treat death differently because they focus on individuals rather than mass extinction.
Although Mad Max Fury Road is driven by action and violence, it also cuts away from these moments. The greatest example of this cut is at the beginning of the film, where we learn that the world has ended, but receive no details about how this happened or how many people died. The narration tells us that the earth dried up and there was a shortage of water and oil. This is the only information we receive, and the film moves on from that point. The film is frightening because of this decision. It brings the apocalypse closer to us by asking us to imagine how it happened. So, while the film is interested in the apocalypse, its more invested in its aftermath, specifically humanity’s possible redemption and the role of the viewer.
Another example of imagined violence is how the film begins in media res, or in the middle of a larger narrative. We hear about how the Wives were abused, and that they escaped, but the details are not shown. The film doesn’t feel compelled to include a abusive flashback, for fear of somehow perpetuating this abuse by shooting it. Again, the camera is innately related to violence, and the film is very careful with what it shows and how. Like the War Boy’s sentiment, it understands the respectful role of the witness, and when that role is needed. This means that the film plays with the dynamic of seen and unseen, and thus involves the two forms of violence mentioned above. The first is what is shown, the second is what is left for the audience to imagine. This means that the film, for all its spectacular and heart racing scenes, is very aware of the politics around watching, or what should be seen versus what is.