In 1979, a weird, rough-hewn independent film from Australia crashed through movie screens like a runaway muscle car, featuring unknown actors, a director with more experience as a doctor than as a moviemaker, and a production so threadbare that sometimes its crew was literally paid with cases of beer. The movie initially polarized audiences, offending some with its bleak worldview, gruesome depiction of violence, and thoroughly anti-heroic narrative. For others, it captured the Inherent fragility of a civilization dependent upon a scarce energy source to survive, and hellbent on burning through its remaining reserves of it as fast as possible. This cinematic dystopia was so compelling that it would eventually expand to become the default against which all other post-apocalypse stories would be compared. There have been many different ways to depict the collapse of civilization, but none of the capture the perversity, depravity, barbarity and insanity of George Miller’s turbocharged directorial debut: Mad Max.
The story takes place at some point in the near future, when for reasons left unexplained, Australian civilization has largely collapsed. The highways have become hunting grounds for marauding outlaw gangs who rape and pillage whatever they find, and where the last vestiges of law and order are the Main Patrol Force, a cadre of well-armed combat drivers whose preferred method of dealing with anarchistic troublemakers is to run them off the road at terminal speed. The MFP’s best driver is Max Rockatansky, who, after intercepting and killing some maniac thrillkiller named the Night Rider, incurs the wrath of the Night Rider’s buddies, a ruthless motorcycle gang led by the charismatic and cuckoo Toecutter. Seeking revenge, Toecutter’s gang wages war on the MFP, claiming the lives of Max’s partner Goose and stalking Max as he takes his wife and infant son on a holiday to the country in the hopes of leaving the madness of the crumbling city far behind him. But Max will learn the hard way that in a world where gas is more valuable than gold and where weapons of choice are distinguished not by how many bullets they carry, but on how many wheels they’ve got, there is no peace to be found in this world. Just violence and revenge, and the madness they bring.
For fans of the Mad Max series, this first film comes off as much different than its successors. Just beginning to examine its own setting of fuel-injected mayhem, Mad Max feels less like a full-blown post-apocalypse story than a kind of dire cautionary tale of the creeping anarchy hard-wired into the future humanity has built for itself. It almost comes off like a Western, where you’ve got meager cities where law still prevails, the badlands where there is no justice, let alone order, and the middle ground between them where good people try to live their lives, bad people take what they want, and terrible bloodshed is bound to occur.
That bloodshed is carried out in a series of fantastic car chase scenes, executed by what have to have been some of the most daring and skillful stunt drivers in all of the southern hemisphere. The action sequences turn our fascination with the open road and fast cars into a kind of twisted vehicular carnage, with machines that no longer take people anywhere except to their graves.
What makes this nihilistic hellscape so great is its titular character, played by a young Mel Gibson in the role that would launch his career. Max is an ice-cold road warrior, sure, but he also knows that he’s beginning to like his job a bit too much. There isn’t much use in fighting to keep your wife and child safe from the crazies if you end up becoming one of the crazies yourself. Like the gunslinger who hangs up his gunbelt, or the samurai who puts his sword on the shelf, Max tries to turn in his road leathers, either too naïve or too much in denial to realize that at some point, he’s going to put them back on again, and when he does, they won’t come off for the rest of his life. We know he will come back to the road. The reason why is what makes us watch with dreadful expectation.
As revenge stories go, Mad Max is fairly straightforward. After the MFP can’t close the door on Toecutter’s gang and after Goose dies a horrible, fiery death, Max turns in his badge. But the further Max tries to put his old police life behind him, the faster Toecutter’s gang seems to home in on Max and his family, making a final showdown inevitable. When Max does return to the road, taking command of a souped-up V8 interceptor as his chariot of justice, he doesn’t go out as a lawman, but as one of the road warriors he was afraid of becoming.
There is no better proof of it than in the movie’s moment of truth, a final scene where Max has finally dealt with Toecutter and his minions, except for the miscreant known as Johnny the Boy. Earlier in the film Johnny killed Max’s partner Goose by setting him aflame, so Max decides to return the favor. He cuffs Johnny to a car, sets a flare to its gas tank, hands Johnny a hacksaw and tells him he’s got seven minutes left before the car and Johnny turn into a fireball. It’ll take him 10 to cut through the cuffs, but only five to saw through his own ankle. And with that, he drives off. In serving up such a twisted fate, Max doesn’t really beat Toecutter’s gang; he simply becomes one of them. The only difference is his choice of victims. As Max heads out into the wasteland, we see that maybe the last decent guy in Australia is truly gone, and where once were heroes and villains, now there are only predators and prey.