Mad Max (1979)

The opening of Mad Max is an elongated chase sequence, an escaped cop killer known as Nightrider (Vincent Gil) leads a band of cops on a high speed car chase down the ever long stretching Australian highway. Intercut with the crazy car stunts of avoiding potholes, crashing through trailers and sliding off the road is a shot of a cop getting ready. It’s slow and deliberate, each boot fastened, each glove tightened just right. And once this cop enters the picture the pursuit ends in a minute.

The cop’s name is Max (Mel Gibson) and he’s the last of a group of men attempting to maintain law and order in a world where governmental control has collapsed and only a few base systems remain intact. When Max’s high speed chase with Nightrider ends in flames, a gang led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byren) begins ravaging the local towns. Max may be all that stands between the gang and the helpless surrounding populous by he’s not sure if he’s willing to put his life on the line.

In this way, Mad Max is an unusual film. In a typical action film, Max would be the hero from the onset, but in this film he’s selfish, more concerned for his well-being, and the well-being of his wife and baby, than the populous. It’s not spoiling much to say that eventually Max and Toecutter must come to a head, but the way the film builds to that moment and structures itself makes that final climatic showdown as inevitable and dramatic as possible.

Part of the reason it’s so dramatic is because the film gradually builds to a fever-pitched tone. At first the film is set in a rather normal world. We don’t get a big hint of a dystopian future for a while. But as the film gradually builds things become more and more chaotic and violent. From the grating roar to the biker game to the increase in graphic violence, the film slowly and gradually builds to this frenzied view of the bleak future of the world.

And the world is certainly the most distinct aspect of Mad Max. Yet we don’t know what led to this future. War, famine, financial depression or any number of hypotheses could be equally valid. Unlike most dystopian universes, this is not a physically marred world. There are still beautiful plains and a number of nice buildings. It’s just that the social and political structure of the world has collapsed and led to chaos.

And the fact that the universe exists in a world that is not to unlike our one makes it all the more disturbing. The domestic scenes with Max and Jessie (Joanne Samuel) could easily be from any number of films set in the modern day. And the way the film sets up their romance in these beautiful settings only to then throw us off with the frenzied and mad biker gang makes for a distinct and revolting contrast.

The film enhances this feeling of a plausible universe with the independent moviemaking. This film looks cheap. No, it doesn’t have sets falling apart or poor technical prowess, you can just tell the film is made on a shoestring budget which perfectly complements the film since this is a universe where things are often held in place by a shoestring. It also grounds the film a bit more in the grittiness of the universe and makes it feel more like a documentary.

Visions of the future, good or ill, are often grandiose and bold, but here is a much more subdued picture. By creating a kind of world that is only shades different from our own, the experience become uncanny. The gradual build and the slow draw into the frenzied chaos of random violence and cruelty makes for a compelling watch. Often when looking to the future, the distinctness of the world is what sets it apart, but by making the world all too familiar, Mad Max presents a far more disturbing and frightening future because it is all too likely.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

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One Response to Mad Max (1979)

  1. Ben L. says:

    Yeah, just watched it. Much better than the second IMHO. More fleshed out and the low-budget-ness does lend a kind of unvarnished low-level feel to the whole thing.

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