Mad Max is a thrilling film, with an undeserved reputation for violence since the bloodletting is mostly suggested or off-screen. It soars during the car and motorcycle stunt sequences (coordinated by Grant Page) because these characters live through their vehicles (marvellous award-winning editing from Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson). Co-written by director George Miller and journalist James McCausland (based on a story by Miller and producer Byron Kennedy), it was the latter’s only screenplay before he became editor on Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.Mel Gibson’s grim demeanour and ruthlessness look like so much play-acting, and he’s awkward out of his leather in the family scenes (he didn’t build his first fully-rounded film characterisation till his next film, Tim). The theatricality of the other actors is occasionally grating, but mostly works, especially their alienating A Clockwork Orange style riffs. Hugh Keays-Byrne is particularly memorable as biker gang leader the Toecutter, though he doesn’t get to cut any toes (compare Bruce Beresford’s Money Movers, also released in 1979). Steve Bisley is terrific as livewire cop Goose. Surprisingly, the homoerotic antics of the gang do not come across as so much camp villainy.
Worthy of note is George Miller’s suspenseful and clever misdirection involving the continual evasion and outwitting of the gang by Jessie (Joanne Samuel, a last-minute replacement for another actress who broke her leg on the way to the shoot). Her demise - off-camera - is more powerful for it. Most chilling is the ending in which Max devises a sadistic demise for one of the gang members (ironically the one who refused to ignite Goose’s truck when he was trapped in it). It turns Max into a Dirty Harry-style vigilante and, assuming you’re not whooping with lustful glee, leaves you repulsed and disturbed.The low budget means the near-future setting is believably close to ours, with recognisable towns and people and machinery. This is also pre-Miller’s discovery of Joseph Campbell, so the story, setting and character refreshingly aren’t mythologised to death. The film feels more real and relatable and less like out-there science fiction as a result. Brian May regrettably overdoes the hammy horror touches in his score.
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