I had not seen a single Mad Max picture until May 2015 in the days leading to the premiere of Mad Max: Fury Road. I had not been excited and anticipating that film based on the strength of the franchise up until that point nor on George Miller’s output (whose name would rarely reach my mind prior to this year – while I had seen the Babe movies as a child, the only real reason I recognized his name was from his failed attempt to create a Justice League feature). I was really fucking excited for that movie based on how high-octane the trailers were alone. Without any baggage from the previous trilogy that sent Mel Gibson from Australia back to America. None of that.
From what I understood from people who had seen the series, it wasn’t a necessity to catch those initial three pictures to get into the then-upcoming picture. But I figured “why leave that gap?” and so I went ahead and popped the DVD of the first film I had for four years (only playing as background noise once while I worked on a Lab Report) and sat my ass down to begin watching a forefather of many things cinematic: low budget filmmaking. Vehicle-based action cinema. Australian cult cinema. Post-apocalyptic cinema.
As I pre-gamed myself with this movie and its sequels (which I shortly bought on Blu-Ray), a friend suggested that the first film for both Miller and the franchise Mad Max would be underwhelming and boring, easily the weakest of the bunch, a sentiment I had constantly heard from others in the time coming to that day in May as well.
What the fuck are you guys smoking, though?
I get that to many, Mad Max doesn’t seem like much you haven’t already seen in a million other car chase scenes, but let me tell you: you’re watching its DNA spread. And witnessing the genesis of that form of kinetic car-porn editing and cinematography made as a desperate attempt to make Mad Max larger than life as a film was something I found myself glued to. I get that it may be the Blade Runner effect where just because it did it first doesn’t make it compelling, but Blade Runner‘s my favorite movie anyway so jog on.
But even beyond how viscerally exciting the movie’s car choreography and cinematography by David Eggby is how much more impressive I find Mad Max as a physical production. Before May, my holy grails of low-budget cinema were Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead as aggressive showcases of ingenuity needed when your resources are limited. The former film was made for 114k, the latter’s production budget has never been reliably sourced but it ranges between 350 to 400k. And they have that cinematic presentation as opposed to found footage films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project.
But the problem is Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead look like what they cost, even if there are good movies underneath the cheapness of it all. And it doesn’t bug me (on the contrary, Night of the Living Dead is one of my Ten Desert Island Movies), but it’s present. Mad Max was made for 350,000 to 400,000 Australian Dollars (decidedly less than the budget of The Evil Dead and came out feeling like it just as well belonged in any Hollywood car rally film like Two-Lane Blacktop or Vanishing Point.
Except it also has a lot more character beyond how balletic and full of momentum its car chases and crashes are, but let me get to that in a moment. I should begin recapping what the hell this film is about.
In the near future, the world has gone through an energy crisis and now most of society is in the middle of (rather than being on the verge of) breakdown – violence and gangs run rampant around the roads. Civilisation still exists with cities and social gatherings, but it’s almost certainly on its last leg (something I’ll get back to shortly). And the civilisation we are now focusing on is that isolated island of self that is Australia, where the government has its own police called the Main Force Patrol that is little more than a car gang working for the government itself, their weapon of speed being the Pursuit Special.
When we’re dropped into this vehicle-based society, a motorcyclist who deems himself the Nightrider (Vincent Gil) has murdered one of the MFP and stolen his Pursuit. He and his girlfriend take another few MFP officers for a violent and reckless whirl before one particular officer remorselessly forces the Nightrider to becoming a wreck – both mentally broken and literal fiery scrap of a human. That man is revealed to “Mad Max” Rockatansky (Gibson), a man on the verge of quits with the Force making his Captain Fifi (Roger Ward) extremely touchy about this. You see, Max is the MFP’s top guy, though we didn’t need Fifi telling us that since we witnessed Max in action from the very get-go.
Yet Max is also a family man with a wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and son Sprog (Brendan Heath) and he recognizes that the problem isn’t that he gets no accountability for forcing deviant motorists to fuse their flesh to the hot steel of their wrecked car. It is that he’s afraid he himself will become that collateral damage. Even while the world around him is eventually dying and ending, he’s afraid of his own mortality.
In the meantime, The Nightrider turns out to have had friends in the form of a gang headed by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). After they show up at the train depot to pick up what’s left of the Nightrider, they go and turn the area red in his honor, including chasing after a couple whom they terrorize and rape.
I led the plot summary to this point because I really think this moment of violence is what really makes the movie one-of-a-kind as the sound design and editing by Tony Paterson and Cliff Hayes really does well to make the cars their own fully-fleshed characters in this world. We thankfully never see any rape or violence to the man or woman of the couple happen (I don’t even think they say “rape” in the film; you can just figure out when you happen upon the aftermath like Max does), what we DO see is the gang tear apart the man’s car – smashing windows, bashing hoods, scratching paint, all in detail that feels painful and full of anguish when taken with the cinematic act of overlapping the woman’s screams over this devastation that is occurring. Machinery is not an extension of life in Mad Max, it is its own life in the movie. Earlier on, Fifi attempts to seduce Max away from retiring with a specially modified V8 Interceptor and when Max’s partner/best friend Goose (Steve Bisley) shows Max the engine roar with glee, the look on their faces is like they’re about to go get turnt up and laid tonight. That’s where most of the personality of the world Mad Max takes place in lies.
Which is why it makes it a bit more of a bug when the movie tries to domesticate itself into a more intimate story of Max’s life – particularly with his relationship to Jessie and Sprog and the vacation they attempt to take later on in the film. It just seems such a jar against how the movie tries to showcase its environment as a showstring society on the verge of economic collapse and already dealing with moral collapse, that while Gibson and Samuel try their very best to make their moments the most human, it doesn’t fit in this kind of nihilistic story. Kind of.
It’s obvious from the get-go that most of the people in Max’s life – Goose, Jessie, Sprog – are doomed to be lost as casualties of the dystopian Australia’s decay and when the movie starts leaning towards that dehumanization of Max is where I finally see where it is getting at. Gibson’s performance already sort of toes the line between Father and Husband and Against-the-Book Cop and it never really finds much of a point where his body language or facials can push more into the latter. He just sort of follows the plot where it takes him and while it doesn’t make Max any less of a character, it doesn’t help Max’s psychological arc either – in fact it sort of nearly wipes it away. The majority of the color comes from the bombastics of the villains themselves in just illogical manners – Keays-Byrne himself seems to twist around between being an animal on two feet playing human and a heightened actor aware that he’s being caught pretending he’s in Shakespeare (Keays-Byrne indeed had a background with the Royal Shakespeare Company).
But still in the end, the true source of all the energy of the film is the car design and chaotic speed with which Miller captures their roar and charge, like lions and animals in the Savannah challenging each other. The movie ramps itself and nudges the action to keep going faster and more aggressive but never loses continuity or fluidity, which only serves to double the relentlessness of the car chase’s force.
And then there is of course what I meant to get back to: the world. This movie doesn’t try to build its world so much as show how far it has shrinked by now, with shots like the Hall of Justice’s broken exteriors (and the interiors looking like not much more than a warehouse the MFP may have squatted in) implying the further collapse of society that we don’t get to see much of in the latter half of Mad Max. Instead, it lives in Max himself where we witness the revenge of the bikers happens practically accidentally to all the things that made Max want to come out of this story alive and by the end of it, he has no reason to be much more than the sort of harbinger of chrome carnage Fifi always wanted him to be. He’s become just as desolate as the world around him has been on the verge of – he beat it to emptiness.
For a film shot and taking place, almost entirely in daylight, Mad Max is one of the finest showcases of nihilism in storytelling I’ve caught and I think its ending moments especially do well to carve out the brutality that Max has himself personified and leaving him more able to cause as much physical damage to a world that practically doesn’t exist anymore. Which I think is the perfect little place for a movie franchise to leave our character before he redeems himself from his apparent hopelessness…