***½/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras B
starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Steve Bisley, Hugh Keays-Byrne
written by James McCausland and George Miller
directed by George Miller
by Walter Chaw George Miller's films are warnings against dehumanization, against valuing machineries over intuition and emotions. It's what drives the Holocaust parable at the heart of his masterpiece, Babe: Pig in the City; what made him the perfect match for Twilight Zone: The Movie's remake of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Though terms like "visionary" and "auteur" are as overused as they are misused, Miller is both. He's a rarity in the modern conversation: an aging director who shows no signs of a slackening energy or diminished focus. See also in Miller's work an unusual sensitivity to physical deformity set up against a righteous offense at spiritual blight. (He began his career as a trauma physician.) His films seek to do no harm, but sometimes you need to cut out some healthy tissue to get at the disease. All of it--the work as a doctor, the scrappiness, the impulsiveness that led to his strapping an airplane jet on a car and hoping no one would die (no one did)--is part of a creation mythology for Miller that's as fulsome as Herzog's. Testament to Miller's enduring influence and outsider status: he's a sainted figure, for good reason.
The near-future isn't quite a wasteland yet in Mad Max, Miller's feature debut, but the film establishes a key theme of diminishing resources that will persist throughout the series as Miller angles it to catch different facets of the Industrial Revolution prism. Inspired in part by queues snaking for miles in a contemporary oil shortage Down Under, the picture turns on the question of whether our hero, highway patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), will trade his humanity for a faster car. The bigger question becomes whether, ultimately, Max even gets to decide. It's that sense of the inevitable obsolescence of the flesh that gives it its feeling of apocalypse. Max is doomed--we know it by the title, and we trace it in the string of atrocities visited on his mates on the police force and then, inevitably, in the most horrible way, his young family. Miller carries it all off with his now-typical energy and gift for visual storytelling. He's at his weakest when the characters are verbal, though you could argue that the simplicity of the dialogue speaks to the archetypal intent of the tale. Miller found his muse in graceful, lithe Gibson, who does things without words that would be impossible to quantify with them.
Those familiar with the post-apocalyptic dystopias of the next three films will be surprised at how Mad Max is essentially an exploitation flick about a good man driven by the unthinkable to do terrible things. Around that central premise is a looming idea that the very personal things visited on Max are actually impersonal social eruptions driven by a fatal lack of societal foresight. It suggests that the Passion of Max is an allegory for the human condition and that we've brought it all on ourselves anyway with this fetishization of metal and fire; Mad Max and its first sequel, The Road Warrior, would play perfectly in a triple-feature with Cronenberg's Crash. The irony that drives Miller's work is that it has, itself, been fetishized for its metal creations and crucibles of fire. The images that stick with me, though, are the ones where Max uses various broken vessels to catch "guzzoline," freed from its containers in the prologue to The Road Warrior and here, at the end of Mad Max, when he uses them to rig an improvised fuse, the better to torture to death a baddie in a surprisingly Swiftian antecedent to Saw. When Max does something similar with mother's milk in Fury Road, it points to something essential in the shifting of focus for Miller with regards to the most precious fluids in the post-civilized world.
For what they are, the stunts are astounding in Mad Max. Cranked at ¾ speed, they're framed with elegance and a strong sense of spatial geometry. The best stunt, it can be argued, is the effortless physicality of Gibson's work at the conclusion, when he loses the use of one arm and one leg and still manages to drag himself to judgment. It's as impressive a physical performance as Ray Bolger's Scarecrow, and similar to it in other ways as well: Max discovers that he needn't search for madness--he's been mad all along. But there are fewer stunts than we've come to expect from these movies. The Mad Max saga at this point is about the choice between pacifism and action, and it makes clear soon enough that there really is no choice. It's a bit like Death Wish in that way, complete with a strong throughline of sexual menace of not just Max's family, but a sex slave found chained to a car in the wasteland as well. Miller spends a long time with the coaxing of this young woman to trust the police who've come to liberate her. He gives Max a fascinating moment in the hospital when they drop her off as he registers his despair and revulsion. The central scene of domestic bliss meanwhile recalls the moments between Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. (Gibson is a sneaky great actor and cast from the same mold as Dean.) It gives the film unexpected depth. I suspect a retrospective at some point would reveal the same of all of Gibson's work.
The final third of the picture is a slasher flick. The evil Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his motorcycle gang stalk and terrorize Max's wife (Joanne Samuel) from city centre to countryside to forest. A dog is killed (another will be killed in The Road Warrior--there is no better shorthand for the loss of civility than the murder of a dog), and a feeling of inexorability predominates. Mad Max is not dissimilar from John Carpenter's contemporaneous Halloween, in that way. Max is ineffectual, emotional, feminized. He wants to quit the police force to spend time with his family, but he's not able to protect them: always a few minutes too late, always making the wrong decision on where to be. An old woman and her simple man-child prove equally ineffectual, and the three of them, representing an insupportable family foundation, can only bear witness to the ultimate transformation of Max into remorseless killer. I used to think the ending came too quickly. What I understand now is that Max's acts of vengeance are by necessity coldly efficient. The thing that separates Mad Max from its Death Wish contemporaries is that the hero by the end of it is unquestionably an agent of cruelty, a member of the chaos--explanation in full of why it is he disappears back into the abyss at the end of each subsequent entry. (Of all the greats whom Miller resembles, he most reminds of Anthony Mann in this respect.) Max is not redeemable. He is King Arthur, he is Ethan Edwards; he emerges from mythology and returns to it. Everyone else gets a happy ending in these stories, not him.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Through parent label Shout!, Scream Factory brings Mad Max home again on Blu-ray in a "Collector's Edition" that sports a perfectly fine 2.35:1, 1080p transfer along with a few new special features. There's been some controversy about the image being inferior to previous BD issues from MGM (and, subsequently, Warner) that, at least to my eyes, seems rather overblown. I did note more DVNR use here in an A/B comparison, but not enough to severely hinder fine detail or compromise the movie's lo-fi charms. Colours and dynamic range are indistinguishable from one release to the other; frankly, I'm hard-pressed to tell them apart, although I'd sooner return to the MGM version for its slightly more tactile surfaces, given how much of the film is craggy landscapes and sweat-beaded skin. The original Australian soundtrack is provided in 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD MA configurations alongside a 2.0 lossless presentation of the American dub--for the nostalgic and the terminally curious, I guess. (In the U.S., a nervous AIP insisted on flattening the Aussie accents and eliding local saws and witticisms.) As far as the 5.1 track goes, there's some hollowness in a couple of the dialogue scenes (particularly the late harangue in a stairwell from Max's superior--maybe that's the intention?), but the explosions suitably bellow. The U.S. dub serves only to remind how stupid American distributors can be. One wonders whether Andie McDowell's or Kevin Costner's unlooped voices for Greystoke and Robin Hood, respectively, still exist.
A compilation of interviews with Gibson, Samuel, and DP David Eggby (27 mins., HD) further demonstrates that Mel is far, far beyond the bend. He regurgitates the usual boilerplate, starting with the story of his showing up for the first audition after getting into a bar fight the night before. It's long debunked, but print the legend and all that. Samuel, recalling how the actress initially cast as Mrs. Rockatansky broke her legs in a motorcycle accident, is charming, while Eggby is altogether too humble in discussing the work he did on the fly and under sometimes-extreme circumstances. A weird thing: the clips from Mad Max jitter throughout, proving to be unforgivably distracting. Eventually, I stopped looking at the screen. "Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar" (17 mins., HD) is a hagiography for the star that spouts rhetorical questions such as, "Did you know Mel Gibson was the first Australian actor to earn $1M?" and, "Did you know Mel Gibson was the first actor to earn $25M?" Also he had the "C" word, which was "charisma," And the "A" word ("anti-Semitic"), and "M" for "misogynistic," and "P" for "Probably psychotic but I'm not a doctor."
In "Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon" (25 mins., HD), a variety of talking heads recounts the picture's cultural impact. It bears mentioning that the same problem with the excerpts recurs. Recycled from the previous Blu-ray, an audio commentary for Mad Max proper features Art Director Jon Dowding, Eggby, and F/X guys Chris Murray and David Ridge, who tell you everything you need to know about the key effects, including the rig they hooked up to make eyes protrude on the Shemp for Toecutter. Herein are the main stories of the production, such as Mel learning to act at a slower speed to match the under-cranking. Notably absent is Miller, alas; I'd listen to Miller pontificate on almost any film-related topic. Two HiDef trailers, upscaled TV spots, and a stills gallery round out the disc.