Monday, September 5, 2011

Mad Max (1979)

It had been years since I have watched Mad Max (1979), and thanks to Netflix Instant Viewing, I was able to revisit it. I originally saw the film close to the North American VHS release of its sequel, The Road Warrior (1981), which would have made me a lad of six or seven years old. Needless to say, I missed quite a bit of the text of the film, as I was mostly enthralled with both films' kinetic action sequences. My parents never censored anything from me, and for that, I am grateful. In any case, seeing Mad Max, today, it is the quintessential Post-Modern film, before being Post-Modern was hip. It's clearly a fantastic exploitation picture, rooted firmly in its genre, and clearly a milestone in "Ozploitation Cinema," the unique brand of genre cinema from Australia, which is now enjoying a renaissance. Mad Max is also a brilliant science fiction film which owes a clear debt to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1973), for example, and provocative science fiction literature, such as the work by J.G. Ballard. In terms of visuals, director George Miller's seminal film was really only topped by Miller, himself, with the film's sequel.

Almost all science fiction, whether literature or film, needs a context. The viewer or reader needs to know what are the rules of the world: what is the year? how has technology advanced? And how has it affected the culture? In a brilliant subversive touch, Miller dispenses with the comforting science fiction exposition. "A few years later," as on-screen text, is all that is delivered. So what is shown? A suicidal, psychotic madman, known as the Nightrider (Vince Gil) is blazing through the countryside in his suped-up muscle car. Leather-clad men, who operate with methods a lot like the police, are bored. Over their walkie-talkies, they hear of the Nightrider's escapades. A leather-clad pair starts their vehicle. The vehicle is eerily similar to a modern NASCAR model. Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) interrupts his meal to hop on his motorcycle and join in on the action. One of their number remains silent in his vehicle, waiting for the Nightrider to pass his way on the road. If this leather-clad group is the police, one would intuitively think that they would attempt to subdue the Nightrider and end his reign of terror. Nope. They're going to kill him. The silent one, waiting in the shadows, is Mad Max (Mel Gibson), and he kills the Nightrider. The Nightrider's death becomes Mad Max's Pandora's Box: it invites the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his violent crew and their wrath. Whoops.

The first act of Mad Max is totally disorienting. If the action sequences weren't enough, that is. There is almost nothing for a contemporary audience to reference to their own world. In a humorous touch, the leather-clad crew of enforcers reside in a decrepit and littered building, titled "Hall of Justice." However, they act like a crew hanging around a motor pool. The local mechanic, in one scene, shows Goose and Max the car that he built piecemeal. It's called an Interceptor, and it's decked-out to the max. Like little kids, they just want to joyride. The small towns that litter the countryside look like old Western towns, with dusty streets, tumbleweeds, and saloon-doors swinging in the wind. The Toecutter and his motorcycle gang pull their bikes up to the building, like they are hitching their horses. Hospitals are like garbage dumps, and ambulances are like tow trucks. WTF?

The essential premise of Mad Max is that men are violent creatures, and they quite enjoy their violence. Chaos is the norm, and civilized behavior is precious and rare. In melodramatic scenes, with accompanying melodramatic music, perfectly appropriate for an exploitation picture, maternal Jessie (Joanne Samuel), Max's wife, shows Max nothing but love. She attempts to sway Max out of his lifestyle. She's very patient, and eventually, Max sees the grotesque end result of violence. When Jessie is out of his life, however, Max returns to the life to which is he familiar. With excellent exploitation results. The final twenty minutes of Mad Max are exhilarating and totally satisfying.

There are also myriad, beautiful surreal sequences in Mad Max. In one scene, Goose has a wince-inducing, high speed crash on his motorcycle. Clearly disoriented (I'm guessing serious head trauma), he calls for help on his CB, but it is not connected. Goose begins to wander on the road as if being on the road gives him comfort. He commandeers a pick-up truck from a local to haul his bike back into town. Is he all right? No. In a charming way, he's bent and crazy.

In a hundred-and-eighty degree turn, Miller can also be haunting. When the Toecutter and his crew hound a couple down the road and subdue their vehicle by force, Miller cuts away from the inevitable carnage. Max and Goose hear of the exploits and go to investigate. When they arrive at the accident scene, they see the male of the couple running in a wind-shook field, half-naked and full of fear. One of the Toecutter's crew, Johnny (Tim Burns) is still at the scene, completely inebriated. Johnny has lassoed the female of the couple with a long steel-link chain, like an animal. She's been traumatized beyond belief. Later a local remarks that the couple's car looks like "it's been chewed up and spit out." Miller's aftermath scenes rival in power most filmmakers' depiction scenes. These surreal, trippy sequences are the heart of Mad Max: they flow from their own logic and are their own chaos.

Mel Gibson, regardless of what one thinks of him today, was immediately captivating and charismatic from his first scene. The youthful Gibson is amazingly handsome and virile. He's a very credible badass as Mad Max. Gibson plays Max as youthful, playful, and innocent, especially in his scenes with Jessie, and when he's behind the wheel, he's like a man possessed. The rest of the cast deserves further praise, as all are quite good. Miller's action sequences are all about speed. The viewer really feels as if he/she is literally riding shotgun on the action. Cars are presented as powerful tools of breathtaking violence. Is Mad Max thought-provoking? Certainly. However, it's one of those films which takes center stage here at Quiet Cool: it's too playful to be taken seriously, yet it's too serious to be taken lightly. Mad Max has many allusions and influences, too many to name here. A definite must-see for all serious thrill-seekers of cinema.


BRENT said...

An iconic film and one of the true greats of the post-apocalypse genre.
It is also possibly the first Autralian film that launched their film industry onto the world stage. It really took Crocdile Dundee to cement that place but Mad Max was certain the first Ozzie film to get noticed worldwide.

J.D. said...

The more times I watch it, the more I am fascinated by what goes on in the margins of the film. Like, how George Miller provides little details that flesh out this futuristic world. For example, when Max is presented with the Interceptor we learn that the powers that be specifically created it to keep Max around since he was threatening to leave. His boss puts on this front that the world needs heroes but there is a moment with him and the mayor (?) that reveals his true motivations and how desperately these guys are trying to keep the fabric of society together.

Hans A. said...

@BRENT--First, let me apologize in taking so long to moderate and publish you comment. We had a holiday here in the U.S., yesterday, and I was away from the computer. Thanks for commenting! I really appreciate it.

@J.D.--I was able to appreciate the subtlties of the film this viewing. There's so much in the film, I feel too that I'll be rewarded with subsequent viewings. Thank you very much for your insights and comment. It's always appreciated.

Kev D. said...

I love this movie, and now that you've informed me of it's netflixness, I know what I will be watching tonight.

Great post.

Ty said...

Great write-up of a classic!

Dr.LargePackage said...

Impressive review, Hans. After all the bullshit, all I want to do is take my interceptor into the prohibited zone. Putting the bullshit behind you is large and in charge.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I know they are making Mad Max 4: Fury Road, the cars are built, the actors are cast, all they are waiting is for the appropriate time to shoot the thing! Looking forward to that one because George Miller will still be directing the film! That to me is such a plus, that the same director has stuck with the franchise through out all of its films.

Great review of this classic man, I totally agree with you about Miller getting kind of surreal at times, and haunting. That scene were Max goes to see Goose at the hospital, wow, so freaky.