Thirty six years later, with the release of the grandly, boisterously cinematic carnival opera of Mad Max: Fury Road, it is difficult to peer back through the looking glass and glimpse the humble origins of the Mad Max fiction. It is difficult to remember that, for all its commercial and critical success, the 1979 release of Mad Max was nothing more than a budget of 400,000 dollars (a paltry sum then and now) and one of the great modern cinematic visualists doing everything they could together to disturb, provoke, and ultimately, to entertain and thrill. It is difficult to remember how intimately inhuman the original Mad Max is, how nonchalantly brutal and matter-of-factly nihilistic it is in its almost impressionist depiction of apocalypse and social malaise propped up by stunning, startling car chases of unquenchable viciousness. It is also difficult, in lieu of the great majesty of the second film in the series, Mad Max 2:the Road Warrior, to remember how effective the original grinding house classic of action entertainment is to this day.
Certainly, the first Max is the bleakest of the three films in Miller’s original dissection of mankind on the edge of its whims, and it is by a country mile the least operatic. It is, more than Beyond Thunderdome and even more than its immediate predecessor, The Road Warrior, a scorching work of deliberate impoverishment and feral intensity stripped of any extraneous verbiage or baggage. Even more than Fury Road, one sees Miller ever weary of dialogue when human eyes and a smash cut will do. If the moral authority in film world holds that telling is the rule, Miller is recalcitrant. He always aims to show, and his films are distinctly cinematic as a result.
At showing then, we are lucky that Miller proves frighteningly good at hurtling us forward into the action with a tactile brutality and husky immediacy. There’s a persuasive prowling quality to his camera that moves forward with his characters and establishes the geography and geometry of the chase with economy and an unblinking eye for heat and ferocity. Much of what he does is rather simple: cutting on action to establish motion, using counter-intuitive shots to jar and startle us in the middle of chases when we expect continuity editing, pulsing the sound right up into the film so that the mix becomes punishing, framing vehicles from below to establish their venomous, unspoken bestial qualities and power in this world of hell on wheels. Yet so few films interweave these techniques so impulsively, so menacingly, and so thrillingly.
Indeed, up until Fury Road, the original Max is the film in the series that leaves the greatest portion of its storytelling to action, defining characters as iconic myths and destructive impulses more than complex, living beings. But that too finds a measure of carnal character, focusing on how little these characters can truly evolve and breathe in a world that forces them to move forward with consistent motion, never stopping to emote or express themselves. We see this especially in Gibson’s iconic role, which identifies him more as a space on the screen than a human and which relies most heavily on a feral intensity wholly befitting the film. You wouldn’t call it “non-acting” in a pejorative sense, but there is something in the way Miller and main actor Mel Gibson (playing Max in his breakout role) intentionally avoid Max’s emotions and define his life through a series of unthinking decisions and matter-of-fact gestures that establish how little room he has left to learn and live.
Indeed, all of the humans in Mad Max are, for lack of a better term, lacking in dynamism and conflict. Miller’s merciless, fruitful film is very much a showpiece for craft and kinesthetic genius, much more than it is a film of deceptive narrative or heavingly well-realized characters. Miller’s vision is simple, if not simplistic: to create a world where humans don’t much matter, and not to reinstate their humanity, but to drop us into the hell they live in and perhaps even take our humanity away from us. Max’s conflict – there is an essential tragedy to his interactions with a biker gang who serve as antagonists in the film – isn’t so much one of revenge or catharsis but happenstance and existence. When Max scores a win, it is not accompanied by a hurrah but a sigh. The world they live in is a sigh, though, and Max’s tragedy is more-so a way to sap his humanity from him so that he too can become part of the impoverished landscape. The overwhelming sense is of a world where the details outside of surviving until the next day are unimportant and immaterial.
Which brings us to another great success of the film: its lack of narrative, and the way it instills, instead, an abiding sense of non-narrative attrition in a world that doesn’t have much use for stories and growth. Sure, we learn about the state of the world – largely the after-effect of a Cold War era nuclear self-destruction that has since left Australia in a state of almost non-existence. But the film never pauses specifically to tell us about this world; whatever we learn, we arrive at glimpsing out of the side of our eye impressionistically, again entirely fitting and welcome for a film about characters who are definitionally less interested in telling others about their world than they are in simply surviving another day.
A fact which is better still for the simpler, more primal reason that it allows Miller to do what he does best: pure craft and astonishingly forward-thinking brutality and nerve-shredding, cacophonous pain. His characters live their lives on the road, and so does the film. For this reason, it is arguably the most limited of the Max films, but it is all the more harshly effective for how much it accomplishes with how little. This Max, the scrappiest and most immediately frisky of the films, could only ever have achieved these particular successes as an underdog with an almost non-existent budget, using scrapped, junk-like old hogs and destitute locales to sell the broken-down aimlessness of this world and the grimy physicality of the blunt action.
All of which ultimately makes Mad Max out to be a work of impeccable set design, direction, editing, and just about everything else that can rightfully be considered a formal principle of the film medium. It doesn’t rise to the apocalyptic heights of its successor two years later, but for 400,000 dollars and a bunch of scrap metal carted in from wherever in Australia scrap metal could grow (one might guess all of Australia, if Mad Max is as much of a documentary as many suspect it is). It isn’t a perfect film, but it is just about the perfect version of those materials being used for this purpose, and it is a remarkable showpiece for a director at the top of his craft and his unmitigated thirst for the road. Frankly, it is all nihilistic suspense, but that is a fact and not a magnitude of quality. There is good nihilism and bad nihilism, good suspense and bad suspense, and Mad Max is punishingly good nihilistic suspense.