In 1973, the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo. The announcement had immediate effects across the globe, as fuel prices skyrocketed, new fuel conservation laws were passed, new taxes were implemented and members of the public were urged to conserve energy. Australian screenwriter James McCausland noticed the effects of the oil embargo in his home country, observing brutal conflicts breaking out at gas stations every time someone tried to cut in line. McCausland and director George Miller wrote the screenplay for Mad Max with this in mind, imagining what depths of depravity humanity might reach if the energy crisis became more severe. Their grimy portrait of a dystopian future fuses B-movie shocks with incisive social commentary, presenting a world in which the government and the citizenry respectively descend into violent fascism and feral barbarism.
In the world of Mad Max, ruthless motorcycle gangs roam the Australian countryside, stealing precious fuel wherever they can find it and terrorizing any innocent civilians they come in contact with (in one unsettling sequence, an unassuming pair of young lovers are captured, beaten, raped and left for dead). The Main Force Patrol has been created in response, sending top-caliber policemen out to wander the wastelands in an effort to bring the gang members to justice. The death rate for MFP officers is high, but they valiantly (and violently) attempt to preserve some semblance of social order.
The MFP's top “pursuit man” is Max (Mel Gibson, Lethal Weapon), a young hotshot who knows how to handle himself behind a wheel. Alas, when Max's fellow officer “Goose” (Steve Bisley, The Great Gatsby) suffers a brutal attack, Max begins to lose his taste for the job. He turns in his resignation, and determines to devote his life to spending more time with his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel, Nightmaster) and his young son (Brendan Heath). Alas, the world has a harsher reality in store for the man.
Mad Max is easily the darkest film of Miller's trilogy (it was followed by the thrilling The Road Warrior and the epic, silly Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), and feels closer in tone to something like The Hills Have Eyes than to the other Mad Max movies. It's ultimately a revenge movie of sorts, but one in which the actual acts of revenge are cold, messy and unsatisfying (in fact, the film's closing moments serve up a grim scene that would be more enthusiastically – but less effectively - employed twenty-five years later in Saw).
Surprisingly enough, Max actually plays a relatively small role in the film's first half, getting a great entrance and then being sent to the background while Miller surveys the nuances of his bloodsoaked world. This is an origin story, but Miller understands that it's possible to add depth to a character without actually having that character onscreen at all times. As our understanding of this savage world deepens, so does our understanding of who Max is. He's a more human character than most grim, silent antiheroes, because Miller wants us to see him as a person before we're permitted to see him as a cold-blooded icon.
Gibson's alternately stoic and shattered performance is effective, but the villains have always been the most memorable characters in this franchise. Here, the chief baddie is Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Moby Dick), whose demeanor suggests Ghengis Khan by way of Jon Bon Jovi by way of a mental patient. Keays-Byrne brings a grandiose theatricality to the character, effectively setting the tone for the other colorful baddies the series would offer. Toecutter and Max share a familiar character dynamic – villain as cackling comedian, hero as unamused audience member – but there's enough specificity in the performances to make the relationship feel fresh.
The film's low budget rears its ugly head now and then. Miller's direction of the opening action scene is nothing short of sensational (he would top himself many times over with The Road Warrior, but it's immediately obvious that he knew how to stage a thrilling setpiece from the very beginning), yet he was forced to cut other action scenes due to a lack of funding. The film's midsection drags a little, as it becomes clear on occasion that the film is simply filling time between its strong beginning and its strong ending. The quality of the acting varies wildly among the supporting players, though Miller at least manages to cast people who have the right look for each part. Mad Max feels like a rough draft of a movie, but it's a rough draft of a grimly compelling movie. It's a ragged directorial debut, but it makes promises Miller would quickly fulfill.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 1979