Dir:- George Miller
Starr:- Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Roger Ward
I guess my contrariness made me sit through this Aussie ‘cult classic’, from the year of my birth, just a week after England had been rocked by rioting and serious social unrest. I’d genuinely forgotten how bizarre a movie the first part of, what became, the Mad Max trilogy actually is. Having last watched this back when I was thirteen and had a beat-up old black & white TV to work from (the kind that didn’t have buttons, but rather a tuning knob, like a radio), I think it has since become fused in my memory with the slightly more conventional sequel.
Max Rockatansky is a road cop in a future Australia in which all men obsess about automobiles. Some of these men spend so long on the road that they eventually become ‘crazies’ or ‘nomads’, violent sociopaths who no longer abide by the limited rules of a chaotic society. The movie opens with a high-speed pursuit in which a number of cop cars are chasing down a ‘crazy’/’nomad’ called Nightrider. After almost mowing down a mother and child, an echo of what Max himself will endure, the Nightrider and his woman die in a collision. The Nightrider belonged to a group of fellow nomads, whose camp shenanigans have a seriously menacing quality to them, and who now take it upon themselves to hunt Max and his partner, Jim Goose, down.
In many ways it is the classic western premise, similar to that of The Outlaw Josey Wales and Hang ‘Em High, only with the protagonist being targeted, tormented and eventually twisted into a sociopath capable of inflicting his brutal vengeance upon the men who have destroyed his life. There is also a rancid whiff of the Death Wish movies floating about the film, particularly in the horrific way women are utilised. Miller, working off his own script, pares the action down to its barest essentials (Mad Max is as lean a movie as to make Don Siegel proud) focusing on making the seemingly familiar, at once strange and threatening. The dialogue in Mad Max is as stylised as Kubrick’s approximation of Nadsat in his version of A Clockwork Orange, with much of the vocabulary related to automobile maintenance and speed. Whilst the locations are generally made to look like the present day, with just a few details being slightly off, or out-of-place, such as signage, equipment and the interiors of homes. No attempt is made to explain what has actually occurred to leave the land so lawless, but there are some weird political machinations going on, as in one sequence we see a bureaucrat, or politician, discussing the officers having risen to the bait of using a nitro’d car.
Another facet of the movie that may, or may not, have deeper connotations, is the fact that so many of the ‘crazies’/’nomads’ – including Max himself, who as we can see by the movie’s end is a borderline case – speak with distorted accents, very often exaggeratedly pronouncing rather florid terms in something approaching a clipped RP British-English. Might Miller be suggesting that the ‘old colonials’ are barmy? Most impressive amongst the catalogue of punk/new-wave/gay fashioned bad guys is the gang leader Toecutter, played with waspish and maniacal menace by Hugh Keays-Byrne. With a mascara highlighted left-eye the character is a clear homage to Alex from A Clockwork Orange and much of his actions alternate between the childishly mischievous and the perversely sadistic – something that had always struck me as an interesting aspect of Burgess’s novel, the way the youth melds together innocence and cruelty so efficiently.
Keays-Byrne is not alone in the ramped up, larger-than-life acting stakes, with many of the other cast members turning their performances up toward the demented levels of David Keith in Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye, or a movie like Zulawski’s Possession. Roger Ward is perhaps the most obvious example of this, with his Police Chief, called simply Fifi, coming out with some truly random utterances and obsessing about the need for heroes.
Throughout the film Miller dwells upon the idea of masks, with Max wearing a horror mask to the family breakfast table and Toecutter talking of how the masks we wear slip away. This slippage, or loss of face, seems to suggest that Max is struggling to hold his peaceable, law-abiding, family man image of himself together. The mask of sanity, of ‘normalcy’, is impossible to maintain in as unhinged a landscape as this dystopic Australia of the future. During the films charmingly calm interlude, when Max and his family escape from the city to the rural countryside, Max begins to question why he runs the risks of a copper (or ‘bronze’) enforcing the law. When he sees how flawed the justice system is, with a killer and rapist allowed to walk free and openly threaten the police while he does so, Max contemplates packing the whole thing in for a bad joke. The crassness with which Miller handles these broad swipes at corruption, suggest that rather than this being a vigilante movie, it may in fact be an ironic critique of the rapid highway to insanity (society) that all vengeance stalks along.
The agonies of the final third of the movie in which Max’s wife and son are taken from him by the ‘nomad’ gang, instigate his downfall into vengeful retribution. The repetition of that early sequence with mother and son, here serves to reinforce the callous brutality of the truly chaotic. The biker gang, lead by Toecutter, exist to transgress, and what pleasure they take in it. The more disturbing extension of this particular thought is that their transgressions aren’t transgressions at all, for the chaotic dystopia of the movie has nothing but speed and automobiles at its heart – thus, the repetitive violence against automobiles, normally via high-speed collision, or crash. Transgression aimed at the only things this society holds dear, vehicles. In one very funny moment – this is a blackly comic film at times – Max and a mechanic enter into an excited, jargon-heavy discussion of tyres, and Max’s wife quietly makes her excuses and leaves them to it.
Miller manages the tension of the slender plot quite expertly, however the film is brutally undermined by one of the most farcically inappropriate music scores I’ve ever heard. Not only is the thunderous orchestral work almost always out of synch with the action, but it frequently serves to drown out moments of dialogue. I found myself contemplating just how effective certain sequences might have been if the dialogue and ambient sounds were all that featured on the soundtrack. In the end Gibson gets an early Eastwood moment in which he gives the final gang member an awful dilemma, and quips that this was more than his wife, kid and partner were ever given. Max’s face behind the windscreen at the close of the movie is a face etched with taut insanity, a disturbingly bleak closing image, for a raw, awkward, uncomfortable and anarchic exercise in cinematic violence.