Catching Up with the Classics: MAD MAX (1979)

The reputations of the 115 cinematic blindspots I chose for this project played a crucial role in their inclusion. From critics’ darlings to cultural touchstones, I feel like each of these titles has some part to play in some nebulous classic film canon. In the case of Mad Max, it didn’t just kick off a wildly successful Aussie action franchise, it’s the origin film for one of the best films I’ve ever seen: Mad Max: Fury Road.

Fury Road is an impressive feat on its own. It’s a two-hour chase film that’s so much more than the sum of its spare parts, and since its 2015 release, the fourth Mad Max entry has grown from an epic summer blockbuster (and beloved by more than a few Cinapse critics) to being crowned the best film of the decade so far. It was also my introduction to George Miller’s gonzo post-apocalyptic series; until now, I hadn’t seen any other Mad Max films.

I knew I’d be amiss if I didn’t include Fury Road’s progenitor in this project, and I’m so glad I did. Mad Max is a dread-soaked, gritty-as-hell revenge film that’s no less chaotic in its vision of the near future than its bombastic, multi-million-dollar sequel, and is a real testament to how little a film’s budget matters in the hands of the right creative vision.

The world is lurching towards oblivion, ravaged by wild biker gangs and policed by law enforcement too weak to take them on. Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky keeps an increasingly fragile peace with his partner, Goose, stopping individual crimes where they can but unable to bring those responsible to any effective consequences. When he’s not policing the endless highways of Australia, Max takes solace in the company of his wife and infant child — a home that feels almost immune to whatever’s plaguing society. Almost. After the evils of this world come after those he loves most, both Max and society finally reach a breaking point. 

What caught me the most off guard about Mad Max is that, unlike its post-apocalyptic sequels, it’s a realistic modern-day revenge film. Over the course of 90 minutes, Mad Max pushes its cop hero to the brink of lawlessness as thugs like Hugh Keys-Byrne’s Toecutter all-too-easily escape justice for their brutal crimes against innocents. Made on a shoestring budget of $350,000, much of the film’s sci-fi elements are on the periphery — as if the wastelands of future films are brimming just beyond the horizon. As a result, the world of Mad Max is more familiar than alien, set on barely-maintained roads rather than crumbling ruins or vast hellscapes.

But as Max toes the line between dutiful cop and vengeance-obsessed speed demon, the world around him veers increasingly towards armageddon. Elderly farmowners ready their rifles against invading marauders; ghost towns litter the highways; the signs above the Halls of Justice hang in rusty disrepair. There isn’t an exact finger placed on what’s going on in the world of Mad Max, but it’s clear that Rockatansky is an ill-equipped man fighting the symptoms of a greater societal plague than its causes. Instead of showcasing the horrors of a lawless world, Mad Max shows us what horrors already lurk among us, just waiting for the right tip in the wrong direction.

And God, does George Miller know how to tip those scales just right. His action sequences and chase scenes never lose sight of individual instances of cause and effect, not just from scene to scene, but shot to shot. Miller’s camera peers from dynamic, Buster Keaton-like angles — staring down car grills like rampaging bulls or barreling down highways towards rapidly-approaching vehicular victims — all with a dual amount of gleeful spontaneity and workmanlike purpose.

Much like Fury Road, my friends and I couldn’t help but whisper, “how’d they do that?” during our viewing of Mad Max. The first instance was early in the film, where the camera stares through a motorcycle windscreen as two arms firmly grasp the handlebars beside it. I couldn’t help but picture the cameraman with a running film camera in their lap as they sped off, with Miller trusting them not to let the camera fall off and explode into oblivion mid-take. To me, that epitomizes Miller’s directorial style: like the silent-film directors before him, he diligently maximizes what can be visually expressed in a frame, allowing for the chaos of a scene to run rampant without ever losing faith in his sense of control.

The most effective aspect of Miller’s direction, though, was how much he evoked a sense of apocalyptic fervor from a film set in the near-present. In something like Fury Road, where people slather themselves with chrome paint and drive blade-laden monster trucks, it’s easy to see the apocalypse as a given. It’s so far removed from the world we know that its chaos is that much more easily digested. It’s another thing entirely to set the apocalypse in the background, without some climactic event that can serve as the demarcation point for humanity’s descent. What Miller seems so fascinated by — and is so damn effective in this film — is how the arrival of the apocalypse is as dependent on our collective belief in law and order as it is on some external chaos. It’s Max’s loss of faith — and acceptance of the darkness within him — that makes Miller’s depiction of the end times feel that much more certain and believable than any other fate.

It’s not often I’m glad I saw a franchise’s latest sequel before sitting down to watch the original — but in the case of Mad Max, it was undoubtedly worth the ride. Mad Max is a dynamic debut feature from George Miller, rich with the visual ingenuity his later films would be known for in spite of its budgetary limitations.

Next post Criterion Review: BLUE VELVET (1986)