Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

May 14, 2015

Mad Max (1979)

by Will Ross

Three decades after the final film in the Mel Gibson cycle of George Miller’s Mad Max series, I’m not sure that the aesthetics of post-apocalyptic science-fiction cinema have progressed even fractionally in comparison to what Miller accomplished in that six-year span. That trilogy, you see — beginning with our current subject, 1979’s Mad Max — had such an immediate and lasting influence on the subgenre that significant deviations from its leather-clad, fuel-starved world of scavengers and machines crudely repurposed from old-world technology are often hardly recognizable as post-apocalyptic sci-fi at all. (A marvellous exception: Miyazaki’s NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind.)

The franchise’s design has had a broad and precise effect on everything from The Terminator to zombie fiction, which is all the more impressive given that its debut entry was a shoestring affair that represented its director’s first feature outing. A lot of its likability and appeal comes from watching Miller and co. make hay out of such bare resources, largely by sticking to dilapidated locations and investing much of their budget in the car stunts and wrecks that, even more than its imagination of a world stripped of law and resources, define these movies.

In this particular entry, however, there are still some remnants of law, largely upheld by the Main Force Patrol, a squadron of crack drivers in searing-yellow chase cars. Among the most respected of this unit is Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), who is introduced in a lengthy opening chase with an escaped convict known only as the Night Rider. After leaving several wrecked police cruisers in his wake, the Night Rider meets his end in an explosive crash that Max may or may not have purposefully caused. But his death spurs his former gang, led by a particularly savage and and anarchistic man known as The Toe Cutter, to take vengeance — not upon any specific person or entity, but seemingly upon social order itself.

And it is The Toe Cutter’s gang that drives and define the narrative more than anything else in the movie, Max included. For while the serial crimes that follow are often perpetrated upon those responsible for the deaths and mutilations of their fellow members, the sense is always that this is less out of any particularized hatred or revenge, and more because they’re the nearest available targets.

Parallel to this is Max, whose idyllic family life (a little too idyllic, if you ask me; their home is too pristine and neat to be believable in a dystopia like this) belies his growing discomfort with his line of work. Max, to his own horror, is beginning to enjoy the carnage of the road, and knows it’s only a matter of time before the police are morally indistinguishable from their prey. Fearing all this, he takes a few weeks off pending resignation, and drives into the countryside with his family. It’s not clear whether he intends to come back or not, but what is clear is that Max dreams of being the button-up dad of a bygone world, and as he watches friends and loved ones senselessly murdered and mutilated around him, it becomes clear to the audience that this is an impossible, even delusional dream. By the end, he lives up to the title in its cruelest, most deranged sense.

This may, as much as anything, represent an artist’s own bitterness towards his former occupation. For much of his youth, George Miller was not an action movie maestro, but his own kind of beleagured civil servant, a medical doctor working in an emergency room. If that experience has left an observable mark on any of his films, it’s Mad Max, whose vehicular chaos and social devastation functions, more than anything, as a metaphor for the frailty and decay of the human being itself, both body and mind. Surprisingly for a small-budget genre film to break through to mainstream success, this is a work of unreserved cynicism and nihilism.

Nearly every scene in the film reinforces this, starting with the opening chase. For one thing, the Main Force Patrol is utterly callous and indifferent, seemingly relishing the chase more as a break from boredom than as a means to uphold justice; one officer, frustrated at his wrecked car being taken out of the game, reacts to his partner’s near-mortal glass-in-the-neck wound with tossed-off annoyance. More delirious still is the Night Rider himself: he and his passenger-seated girlfriend laugh through all the carnage until near the very end of the chase, when he seems to have some sort of existential breakdown, crying and sobbing, “It’s going… There’ll be nothing left, it’s all gone!” Even Max’s vengeful retributions in the last act are shot through with hollowness and despair.

This has somewhat a numbing effect on the action, which is otherwise as kinetic and boisterous as any car chases ever boasted by a film of such meager budget. Those chases are liberally scattered throughout, but their excitement is always tempered with a sense of doom. The world of Mad Max is so utterly hopeless, so roundly presumptuous even in its most lawful corners that everything is going to shit anyway, so we might as well all accept it and strap in, that it makes the scenes with Max and his family seem a little artificial, a quality not helped by Brian May’s cloying music in these moments.

Indeed, Brian May’s music is impassioned but inconsistent throughout, showing all the energy but little of the precision that he would in the next outing; there is often a sense that its pounding drums and dramatic brass are overcompensating for the limits of the production, and it's rendered all the more problematic by the film’s generally poor sound mixing: dialogue is often drowned out by the score and sound effects, and the recording quality is muddy all around. This could be attributed to the budget, but it’s a shame Miller couldn’t find the same resourcefulness with the film’s audio as he could with its visuals.

Regardless of the technical deficiencies of its soundtrack and some lapses in narrative energy, Mad Max is so doggedly crazy and imaginative with its world and action that its watchability never suffers beyond tolerance for its otherwise excellent craftsmanship. What bothers me more is the film’s deeply felt but ultimately cheap pessimism. In spite of all its indie ingenuity and gleefully staged action, Mad Max’s cynicism still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, though thankfully that’s a trait that Miller’s career would thereafter abandon.


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