Film Review: Mad Max (1979)
Published on: November 11, 1997
Leading Players: Mel Gibson (Max Rockatansky), Joanne Samuel (Jessie Rockatansky), Hugh Keays-Byrne (The Toecutter), Steve Bisley (Jim Goose), Roger Ward (Fifi Macaffee), Vincent Gil (Nightrider), Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy), Geoff Parry (Bubba Zanetti), Paul Johnstone (Cundalini), John Ley (Charlie).
Main Crew: prod, Byron Kennedy; dir, George Miller; writ, George Miller & James McCausland (based on a sory by Miller & Kennedy); dop, David Eggby; ed, Tony Paterson, Clifford Hayes; mus, Brian May; art d, Jon Dowding; fx, Chris Murray; cos, Clare Griffin.
In many ways, Miller's first entry into the Mad Max trilogy can be seen as the most influential cinematic work produced in Australian mainstream cinema. Encapsulating aspects of the national mythology and intertwining these within a gothic, dystopic view of the near future, Miller's work abounds in social commentary. Miller's message is carried all the more effectively through his raw, hyper-kinetic editing style and his near-surreal abstraction of visual form and generic conventions. Just as the Australian nation originated from a haphazard blend of nationalities and cultures that found unity in their differences, Miller's work combines the most effective elements of a number of cinematic genres and visual styles in creating a raw and chaotic yet, in some way, harmonious balance to offset the film's unbalanced narrative.
As if to complement the film's post-apocalyptic, post-industrial setting in which the simplest material goods are valued as dearly as human life, Mad Max was produced on a minute budget of $380,000. Unusually, though, many of the film's most recognisable elements, such as the pseudo punk costumes, the sweeping shots of bare, desolate desert and the decaying cars of the Main Force Police seem to have resulted from such a low budget, yet have undoubtedly enhanced the film's visual style.
In addition, Miller and Kennedy sought a relatively inexperienced cast and crew. Approximately 60 per cent of the crew had never worked on a feature film, and most of the cast were unknown prior to this film. (Cinema Papers, May-June, 1979, p.367) This helped give the film a fresh look. The enthusiasm of the crew is clear in the experimental cutting and fast pace of the film's visual form. Shot in anamorphic format, primarily as a commercial consideration, the film's car-chase scenes are given an eery, dramatic feel that seems to place the audience behind the steering wheel. Despite its low budget, or perhaps as a result of such, Mad Max has a visual style, pace and vitality that distinguishes it from all action films of that era. As a result of this, Mad Max took more at the box office in Australia than Star Wars (1977) and found a place in the Guinness Book of Records as having obtained the highest cost-to-profit ratio of any feature film. (Pallot, J., 1995, p.492)
Miller, perhaps regarded as Australia's most cinematic director, utilised composition, camera movement and fast-editing to their full effect in creating a work that is, in essence, purely visual. Miller's employment of fast-motion photography, tracking shots that move backwards at 200 km-h on a specially-equipped truck, and his comic-book-inspired storyboarded action sequences have inspired countless foreign directors. (Cinema Papers, May-June, 1979, p.370) His work, in contrast to the dramatic centrality of most Australian films of the 1970s, is a montage piece that moves with a rhythm reminiscent of rock music. Yet it is not music that drives this piece, it is the low roar of a V-8.
Drawing on his personal experiences working in the casualty ward of a large hospital and living in a small country town in which three of his friends were killed in car accidents, George Miller identifies and portrays, to great effect, the Australian car culture in Mad Max. (Cinema Papers, May-June, 1979, p.369) While American society, and film, portrays its cultural obsession with the gun, Mad Max highlights the violent nature of a car culture that kills far more people than guns do each year in this country. Punk iconography and V-8s that seem to be fueled on testosterone, lend Mad Max a kinetic energy that has rarely been equaled in cinema. Miller's directing and cutting style indicates his deep-rooted emphasis on capturing movement in his work.
It is such movement that forms the film's most powerful motif. Much like a number of road movies/revenge tales, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a character driven by the need to change. His constant movement along the expansive highways and forbidden territories of the desert landscape do, indeed, indicate his psychological journey and consequent metamorphosis. Max represents the normality within each of us that, when upset by some sharp bend in the road (or the death of his friend and family members), triggers a transformation. Perhaps the greatest irony that Miller has captured so vividly is that Max's journey, as opposed to the journeys undertaken in more traditional road-movies, takes him back to where he started. For me, the scenes that tell the most powerful story are those in which Max is driving alone, having disposed of most of his human nemeses. These shots are amongst the few scenes in which Miller slows down the film's pace to allow us time to enter Max's psyche, only to find that he must keep driving, as if caught up in some unending cycle, in search of a utopia that he never finds.
The psychological aspect of this film draws on elements of the psychological western, such as Ford's The Searchers (1956), in which the main character is as much of an anti-hero as Max. The influence of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975) is blatantly alluded to in the tense chase scene in which Jessie (Joanne Samuel) is chased through the forest before bumping into a stereotypical country bumpkin. Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is undoubtedly another strong influence in the psychological portrayal of death and murder, as well as influencing Brian May's powerful Herrmann-esque score. These three influences draw attention to two of the film's generic components. While Miller himself describes the film as a "western on wheels" (Cinema Papers, December, 19 p.403), Mad Max contains elements of the horror genre, as well as the cop movie, road movie and science fiction work. These elements work together in the formation of a terrifying, dystopic view of the future.
Thrusting forward with an ever-insistent intensity, Mad Max takes its viewers on a wild ride through a variety of cinematic genres and styles in its formation of a chaotic future. Its movement and the sparseness of the surreal landscape draws upon a nation's cultural ideals relating to freedom, space, speed, escapism, risk and traditional gender roles while freeing such concepts from the confinement of traditional cinematic form.