Under the avalanche of necessary, vital praise for Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, there’s a figure in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road who has been neglected. Maybe that suits the character, a ball of electricity who’s converted into savior status through a gauntlet of abject depression.
In the beginning, Nicholas Hoult’s portrayal of Nux – the war boy anxious to bring his blood bag along for the fight – is manic bliss. He’s a junkie excited by the promise of bloodshed and battle-earned immortality, but he ends up being the character with the most complicated story arc.
Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is a dictator, so most of the people living in this post-apocalyptic world are his little children, but Nux is the most childlike. He’s also desperately loyal and so hungry for his father’s approval that he’s not only willing to die during the pursuit, it’s his goal to. The thoroughness of his brainwashing is sad, but the true tragedy is that delusion is his best option. He lives in squalor, he has two tumors with rhyming names and a host of easily imagined health problems, and he exists as fleshy cannon fodder. Even if he’s self-aware cannon fodder, trading his life for a false paradise seems to afford him at least some sense of purpose and calm.
Promised lands are a major theme in most post-apocalyptic stories. If you’re running away from zombies, there are always rumors about a cure. If you’re stumbling through a wasteland, there’s always tale of a safe zone. If Big Brother is breathing down your throat, people whisper about an underground movement actively working to bring him down. It’s the manifest destiny of Dystopian stories.
For Furiosa (Theron) and her cabal of sex slaves, the Green Place is their beacon of hope, and while they focus with fanatic devotion to getting there, and while Max (Hardy) seems like he has nothing better to do in the desolation than to begrudgingly help out, Nux is left to blow in the wind. His hope is wrapped up completely in dying for Joe’s cause, and he can never truly win Joe’s favor, but since he doesn’t recognize that, his tripping fall off the war rig at the onset of a relatively simple task becomes a horrifying fall from grace.
It’s all compounded by his enthusiasm. If Max is a rabid dog, Nux is a puppy begging for the tiniest scrap of attention. He loses his mind when Joe looks in his general direction, he’s overwhelmed when Joe brings him on board the lead monster doomtruck, and he’s within millimeters of his life’s goal (death) when Joe tasks him personally with taking down Furiosa. When he immediately, hilariously fumbles, his entire character is broken. He’s failed while his god watched.
This is the second movie Hoult has been bleached for – the first was Warm Bodies, where he played another character with a non-traditional view of death – but his portrayal of Nux up until his big failure is almost unrecognizable for an actor who we connect more to Hank McCoy in the X-Men franchise than to Beast. He’s usually bookish and mopey, but Miller has him spraying chrome polish into his mouth and scream-delivering the line of the movie with meth-infected glee. The sheer energy Hoult exudes on screen should be proof enough of his range, and the rest of the film sees Hoult’s character rise up from despair to find a sense of purpose. There’s maybe even a romantic connection with Capable (Riley Keough), who selflessly consoles him – a man who was attacking them repeatedly moments before – in a way that makes him understand what real affection feels like.
He trades a cold, distant god for a a warm, sensitive person who lies next to him and puts her finger to his lips. Few movies are able to force a villain to the side good so thoroughly, but Fury Road does it by tearing Hoult’s character apart and using a human connection to build him back up.
Even so, he’s still doomed. When Furiosa cries toward heaven upon learning that the Green Place is dead, you have to wonder what Nux was thinking – if he’d accepted this new brand of hope, or if he thought, “Of course it’s dead. Everything’s dead. I’m dead.” Even if they’d found the Green Place, or even if Nux had made it back to The Citadel with them, he was still going to die in a world where chemo treatments are 117th on the list of things humans need but don’t have. However, it’s his status as a tragic figure that allows him to kill himself for the greater good. A genuine Christ figure, he seeks death, wrestles with his doubts, recognizes that his god has forsaken him, and then sacrifices himself so that all of humanity can have another chance at redemption.
It’s the bumpiest road any character in this movie gets to take, and Hoult nails it to the floor with physicality, unbridled enthusiasm, the brass buttons it takes to act like a cocaine-addled monkey in a $100m blockbuster, and then the raw, vulnerable pathos of a loser who’s not completely lost.
All he wants to do is gloriously die, and through a polar shift and a last-ditch taste of peace, he’s able to do just that – for the side of good instead of the maniac he originally served. Furiosa and Max share the spotlight, and it’s easy to argue that the “main character” of Fury Road is “everything,” but Nux is the heart and tortured soul of the story.