I think I was put off the first Mad Max because it seemed a bit too nasty for me. I was worried I’d be scared, frankly, when my pal’s big brother started raving about his VHS copy. Later, I thought it was merely a revenge-rampage movie, with the murder of the hero’s wife and child the incitement. That didn’t sound very enjoyable.
It also seemed, from small clips and stills I’d seen, much cheaper and less stylish than the BDSM desert of the sequels, so influential that it became the default for all future movie post-apocalypses, just as Bladerunner’s Tokyo-on-steroids became the default future-noir.
I was surprised to find that the revenge rampage comes very late in the movie. Most of it is an action police procedural set in the near future, this side of the apocalypse. It’s full of paperwork, bureaucracy, and struggles with work-life balance, admittedly spread between brilliantly staged chases, and, yes, a nasty encounter for some bystanders we’re left to assume involved rape.
The first sequence with Max’s wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel) packs in so many traits (she plays the sax, she knows sign language) that I assumed this was all we were going to get before she meets a horrible, but caltalytic, fate. But George Miller and fellow writers, James McCausland and Byron Kennedy, are far more interested in her than that.
“I’ll be alright… as soon as I get it straight in my head.” That’s how Max explains to her his trauma at pal and partner, Goose, being burned to near death by the evil gang. It’s a better written scene than it has any right to be, with an implied apology for getting himself traumatised in the first place.
Indeed, rather than being spurred to get even, Max wisely surmises that it’s a fairly shit job he has at Main Force Partol, and quits. On the road to the sanctuary of a friend’s farm, there’s another nice moment where Max tries to express the depth of his feeling for Jessie. In short, their relationship gets much more attention than we need just to set up some ultra-violence.
The first time she’s terrorised by the Evil Biker Gang, I was still thinking, “Here we go: brutalised and killed in a way so horrible as to inspire a homocidal rampage in our ‘hero’”. I was wrong, though. She gets the better of the gang’s leader, Toecutter, via calm ingenuity and sheer guts. Making her escape, she stops the car long enough to order Max into the passenger seat, Sarah Connor style.
The second time they try to abduct her, she escapes again, while Max is running off in the wrong direction. The only reason she’s eventually caught is because Max has failed to repair the car (she’s teasingly called him Tarzan at his ineffectually tinkering). And, in the end I was spared the horrible rape I was dreading. They run her over, which is brutal enough, but Miller films it with a discretion that avoids lingering on gore and focuses instead on the grief of the survivors, much to the film’s benefit.
Which is all to say, I’m far more comfortable with the treatment of Jessie than I thought I was going to be.
The ensuing rampage by Max—now Mad, at least in the sense of being extremely miffed—is quick, and not terribly satisfying. (Toecutter, like some of the earlier baddies, dies not by Max’s hand, but simply crashes his bike.) I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not. The chatter on the police radio suggests that Max, with his stolen V8, will not be welcomed back to HQ, or civilisation in general. In a reverse of, say, Get Carter, where Carter has gone way too far to get out alive, but is nonetheless ecstatic when he finally kills his man, Max gets to live, but only as a lost, tormented soul. That’s the assumption, anyway, confirmed two years later with the arrival of the first sequel.