Tuesday, May 24, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mad Max (1979)


"They say people don't believe in heroes anymore..."

- Mad Max (1979)

Despite multitudinous descriptions to the contrary, George Miller and Byron Kennedy's Mad Max (1979) is not actually a post-apocalyptic film. 

Rather, it's pre-apocalyptic. But the handwriting is certainly on the wall...and on the open roads. 

This celebrated cult film might more accurately be described as dystopian in conception because the filmmakers imagine a world, "a few years from now," in which widespread lawlessness has taken hold, and the authorities -- increasingly more fascist in tone, powers, and demeanor -- are helpless to prevent a culture-wide death spiral into anarchy and chaos.

Dominated by a caustic aesthetic of anticipatory anxiety, a sense of psychic uneasiness that suffuses every frame, Mad Max is literally a movie about mankind speeding -- foot pressed hard against the pedal -- towards moral and spiritual annihilation. 

Often, I compare Miller's Mad Max to the early cinematic endeavors of Wes Craven (Last House on the Left) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) because there's a genuine feeling while watching Mad Max, that you, yourself, are in peril.  As is the case with Craven or Hooper, the audience feels jeopardized in Miller's hands, as though it might end up seeing something that could truly do the psyche harm. 

At one point in the film, our hero -- police officer and family man Max (Mel Gibson) -- admits that he's "scared," and the audience wholly shares that trepidation.   Max's vicious world is one without a safety net, in which the laws of the jungle dominate.  Miller enthusiastically takes the film beyond the bounds of  movie decorum and good taste right from the start -- from the opening sequence -- and leaves viewers wondering just how far he will tread into taboo territory.

The result is a film that has lost none of its dreadful, visceral power in over three decades.
   
"Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys. "

Mad Max opens, both symbolically and literally, on Anarchie (Anarchy) Road, as leather-clad members of the under-staffed MFP (Main Force Patrol)  pursue a dangerous "terminal psychotic" called Nightrider. 

Nightrider believes himself a "fuel-injected suicide machine," and survives all attempts at pursuit and restraint.  At least that is, until Max (Gibson) -- the best -- joins the chase.

Finally, Nightrider is killed in a high-speed wreck.  Unfortunately, his "friends," led by the gang leader Toecutter, desire vengeance.  One of Toecutter's minions, Johnny, is apprehended by Max's friend, Officer Goose (Steve Bisley), but then released by effete, officious lawyers.   Next, it is Goose who becomes a target for Toecutter's mad revenge.

After Goose is burned and maimed on the road by Toecutter, Max resigns from the force. With his wife Jesse (Joanne Samuel) and young son in tow, he heads out on a vacation from his responsibilities. Unfortunately, Max's family almost immediately crosses paths with Johnny, Toecutter and the others, and pays the ultimate price.  Max's wife and son are run down on the open road, and left dying. 

Enraged, and with no legal recourse, Max takes command of a souped-up police interceptor, and engages his enemies on the open highway, outside the bounds and restrictions of the law.

I'm not a bad man.  I'm sick.  I've got a personality disorder...

As is the case with all works of art, this film arises from a very specific context.

In particular, Mad Max emerges from the era of "Oz-ploitation" or the so-called Australian New Wave, which included such works as Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock. But more specifically, Mad Max  is very deliberately a reflection of the events, trends and fads of the early 1970s.

As co-writer James McCausland has acknowledged, much of the film's anarchic energy is fueled by the 1973 Oil Crisis, in which OPEC reduced oil production and quickly sent world economies into a tailspin. As gas supplies were rationed, McCausland apparently saw reports of violent outbreaks at gas stations, where drivers acted decisively (and aggressively...) to assure that they weren't caught short at the pump.

Also critical to the formation of Mad Max's underlying structure, no doubt, was "The Super-Car Scare" of 1972 - 1973, which occurred at the height of muscle car culture in Australia. There were talks at that time, indeed, of new vehicles that could travel 160 miles an hour, as well as news story accounts of young, out-of-control drivers in muscle cars (small cars with big, powerful engines...) racing through small communities and causing civil and traffic disturbances.

If you also acknowledge a bit of punk influence here -- courtesy of the nihilistic music movement on blazing ascent, circa 1974 -1976 -- you can easily detect how all the creative ingredients for Mad Max fall into place. Suddenly, we have punk criminals prowling the highways of Australia in souped-up super vehicles, vying for both the remaining oil supply and day-by-day, moment-to-moment domination.   One scene in the film explicitly joins all contexts: Toecutter and his gang hijack a gas trunk on the road, and siphon precious gas from the storage tank.  The underlying message is of a corrupt but rising youth movement leeching off and destroying a dying establishment.

If "No Future" was the unofficial credo and soundtrack of punk music in those days of the disco decade, Mad Max remains the most potent visualization of living for the moment, on impulse, and entirely for self. This is what the law of the jungle is, as dramatized by Toecutter and his gang.  He is a man with no respect for life, law, family, or community.  All he cares about is getting what he wants when he wants it.  "Anything I say? What a wonderful philosophy you have," he quips to a cowering victim.

The world has gone to Hell in a hand basket in Mad Max, and those who still play by the old rules of law try to understand what has happened, and struggle to play catch-up  "Here I am, trying to put sense to it, when I know there isn't any," Max notes, importantly, after the death of Goose.  He's dealing here with a world that no longer makes sense to him.

Accordingly, Max progressively loses his faith that society's decaying infrastructure (as represented by the ramshackle local police center or "halls of justice") can stop the world from spiraling towards destruction.  

It's clear Max's loss of faith arises for a reason, and is not some personal, solitary angst.  His boss, Fifi (Roger Ward) keeps mentioning the need for heroes, and the culture's absence of heroes. 

But what heroes, honestly, could possibly inhabit a blighted, decrepit police station like his? 

The nihilism of the world, of "the terminal psychotics" seems to have bled the life out of public institutions in Mad Max, leaving them as rotting monuments to a previous golden age.  Max realizes, appropriately, that Fifi's comments are "crap."  What his world needs is not cowboy heroes, but a functioning infrastructure; one that funds the police, trains the police, and supports the police in the battle against crime.

Although the lawyers and judicial officers gliimpsed in Mad Max are portrayed as effete, intellectual egg-heads with their heads-up-their-asses, the police are not viewed in terms much more friendly.  In the film's first scene, we catch a young MFP officer ogling a couple making love, and then indulging in a high speed chase which endangers other officers, and civilians.  He looks like he could be a gang member himself...except he's wearing a leather cop uniform.  Similarly, Fifi is interested only in results, not the letter of the law.  He just wants the paperwork to be "clean" so he doesn't get in trouble with superiors.  Again, the impression is of an old, once noble institution that has given way to corruption and decrepitude.

Again and again in the film, Max sees evil triumph over the (flawed) forces of order, and so must make a fateful decision about his own place and role in the world. Mad Max thus brilliantly diagrams one man's disillusionment about society, and his final, knowing, unfortunate break from it.  Many see the film as being fascist in viewpoint because the criminals attempt to argue that they are merely "sick" (and thus to be treated with compassion), but I disagree with that assessment.  Max gets revenge, but at what price?

The price is the very eventuality that Max so dramatically fears all along.  He knows, even starting out, that there is very little difference between the cops and the "terminal psychotics" who vie for control of the roadways.  When Max's family and friends die, that line is blurred entirely.  Max realizes, contra Fifi, that there can no longer be any heroes.  Heroes only work in context of a functioning civilization and support system.

As critic Keith Phipps astutely intimated, Mad Max is almost a character piece, a tale of a man trying to figure out where he belongs under the rules of the New World (Dis)Order:


I often write here about how deeply and thoroughly I disapprove of movies that utilize revenge as the primary motivation for heroes or superheroes.  I think that's just pandering to an ugly, ignoble impulse in human beings.  In this case, however, I would argue that Mad Max does not glamorize revenge and, on the contrary, sends its wayward hero off into a form of societal banishment for his transgression.  Max ends up in the wilderness/wasteland, seeking redemption for his voluntary break from the mores of  an (admittedly crumbling)  society (see: The Road Warrior).  It takes him two more films, essentially, to reconnect with his more noble human nature.

So yes, Max gets his bloody vengeance in this film, but his ultimate fear is realized too.  In breaking the laws of civilization, the only difference between him and the Toecutter's minions remains that he possesses a bronze badge.  What would his wife and son think of him now?

The final shot of Mad Max consists, not coincidentally, of an open and empty road.  We race down it going ever faster, but  never actually arriving at a destination.  There is no love and  no companionship on this long road.  Max now lives for no one but himself.  He can look forward to isolation, mistrust, and confrontation...but nothing else; at least nothing good or positive.

This is a threshold moment...

While carefully noting what he believed was Mad Max's sense of amorality, Chicago Reader film critic Dave Kehr also accurately described the film as some "of the most determinedly formalist filmmaking this side of Michael Snow."

What that description means, in lay terms, is that Mad Max isn't about dispassionately recording or realistically chronicling the details of its sparse, almost Western-styled narrative. Rather, it's about making the audience feel strong emotions. Namely fear, rage and even, briefly, bloodlust.

The reasons behind Mad Max's passionate, singular approach to filmmaking are actually, I believe, entirely moral.

As the film's villain, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) notes to an underling named Johnny (Tim Burns), an act of brutal murder can be considered a "threshold moment" in terms of the human soul. That's his philosophy of life. There's no future. There's no common good. There's just the shattering of boundaries, until everything -- and everyone -- is wrecked.

Now, a threshold is widely defined as the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced, and that seems to be precisely what Toecutter is fostering in both his friends and his enemies. He is sponsoring and encouraging madness, psychosis and violence. Indeed, there seems to be a plague of madness and nihilism sweeping the world in this film, and Toecutter fosters it in his cohorts (such as Nightrider) and his protege (Johnny).

In the film's climax, the audience's surrogate -- Max himself -- endures a similar "threshold moment," treading literally and metaphorically into morally "prohibited" territory (as a street sign indicates) just as he is about to cross-the-line of legality.  The fearsome legend on the sign literally warns him to stop (lest he become like Toecutter), but Max ignores it.

This particular bit of clever framing (pictured above) is not an accident.  Max crosses a moral and geographical boundary in search of personal satisfaction, and Miller's shot deliberately evokes an earlier one in the film, set on a lovely beach. 

There, Toecutter and his gang have similarly ignored signs and warnings about transgression, and headed off knowingly into forbidden territory.  The point of the nearly identical staging seems to be that Max -- in taking the law into his own hands -- is following the very nihilistic path he fears.

Mad Max is actually a moral film, I submit, because it concerns that threshold moment in each of us too. Vengeance might be sated.  But after the vengeance?  As Last House on the Left observed, post-violence, "the road leads to nowhere, and the castle stays the same."  In other words, there's a very big difference between portraying violence and approving of violence.  I would argue Mad Max (brilliantly) portrays violence, while never, even for a moment, glamorizing it or approving of it.

Instead, Mad Max asks: what comes with moral transgression? How does a crossing of the "threshold moment" affect a good person? And if good people can willingly cross the threshold to barbarism, what becomes of civilization, a social concept erected on the foundation of the common good, not personal retribution? 

Mad Max gazes at all these ideas, but does so while moving at 150 miles-an-hour. 

The film -- heightened immeasurably by Brian May's superb score and George Miller's orchestration of the high-speed stunts -- conveys a powerful sense not just of speed, but of speeding out of control.  Mad Max also reveals a world falling apart at the seams, but doesn't offer pat explanations for the breakdown, or easy answers about the solution.    We can try to "put sense" to the madness of this world, but there is quite definitively no sense behind the human impulse towards self-destruction. 

If Mad Max is right, the world itself is terminally psychotic.

15 comments:

  1. "we catch a young MFP officer ogling a couple making love"

    Not only that, the cop is watching the couple through the scope of a rifle! I remember seeing MM in the theater and when my friend saw that, he said, "Holy cow, is he going to shoot them?" That's how tense the movie is from the get-go.
    This is the type of thing I like to think about: if Max hadn't been out on the road being a burned out terminal psychotic, he would have been in the city, getting nuked.

    Speaking of Australian nukes, have you seen the 1988 short "Smoke Em if You Got Em"? (Available via gray market)--it's a swell punk rock end of the world comedy: very recommended.
    Keep up the good work,
    Ivan

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  2. Ivan,

    Yes, you're right! The cop at the beginning is ogling the lovers through a rifle scope, which immediately generates tension, and a sense that something is wrong here...even with the so-called good guys. Thanks for pointing out that detail.

    I also love your point about Max. He would not have survived if he had been in the cities when they were nuked. Man, that adds a whole new layer to the mythos/trilogy, I think. Makes you feel like there was a plan for him after all (and it isn't just a universe of nihilism).

    I have not seen "Smoke 'Em..." but I'm intrigued and will have to look for it.

    Great comment,

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Fantastic dissection of what makes this film tick. It really is more than just a simple revenge film - I think that is just surface exploitation elements that got people in the theater to see cool muscle cars and a bit of the ol' ultraviolence. But, as you point out, there is more going on in this film. Miller is showing the repercussions of violence and how it only generates more and more, dehumanizing people as evident from what Max is like by the end of the film, which, of course, beautifully sets up his eventual redemption in THE ROAD WARRIOR.

    Every time I watch this film I am endlessly fascinated by the actor who plays Toecutter. He has such an idiosyncratic, unpredictable style that is riveting. I wonder if this guy went on to do any other films because he was excellent in MAD MAX.

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  4. J.D.:
    For more Toecutter deliciousness, check out "Stone," a 1974 Australian biker flick directed by Sandy Harbutt. It's one of the best biker flicks I've seen, and Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is great as a spooked-out acid casualty.

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  5. Thank you for dishing out some thoughts on one of my top 10 favorite films of all time. Mad Max is one of a kind. Everyone and there mother, and there mother’s bingo friends favor The Road Warrior over its predecessor. Not I.

    The Road Warrior is all exterior – all surface level. Its “edgy” and “intense” only because it has outlandish villains dressed in extreme s&m bondage who literally do nothing but run around frantically, screaming at the top of their lungs. They’re little more than silly caricatures. Max himself has been further reduced to a one note ‘man-with-no-name’ archetype whose anti-heroics are as predictable as it gets: obviously, he’s going to end up helping the survivors escape. No big surprise. However, I hold none of this against the film to any real negative degree. I like The Road Warrior. I love it. I think it’s a fantastic action/stunt extravaganza with some incredible vista photography. But compared to its predecessor it lacks a true edge that is, admittedly, hard to quantify, though your review makes a fine go at it.

    Mad Max is an open raw nerve of a movie – cheaper, rougher, grainer, more demented. Unlike the straight forward post-apocalyptic setting of its sequel, the world depicted here is more intriguing in the way it titters on the brink of total societal breakdown; an empty run down city, an abandon police station, a delusional tuff-gruff police chief who waters house plants on his spare time wearing a black scarf with no shirt. I watch The Road Warrior from a certain distance, but Mad Max looks and feels like something that could one day be happening just down the highway from any mill town USA (or Australia, respectively).

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  6. If The Road Warrior is and action movie then Mad Max is a feverish psycho thriller with brief but intense bursts of slasher violence and vehicular carnage. The film relies less on straight chaos and more on building suspense with chaotic payoff. The biker gang villains are far more interesting. Yes, they’re crazy anarchists but their also well rounded, quirky individuals with an ironic sense of humor – Toecutter is a treat all his own. Max is also more interesting in that he’s a moderately sentimental family man who’s plagued with a lust for the job. He doesn’t even become mad until the third act, but when he does the character is genuinely arced with dizzying effect.

    The whole movie has an inherent horror quality. The scene where Max pulls back the covers and sees what’s left of his partner Goose is far more terrifying–more visually phantasmagoric–than anything the sequel has to offer. And nothing beats the split-second shot of Toecutter’s bulging eyeballs before his semi truck death blow. It’s interesting to note George Miller’s background as a med student who eventually interned at a city hospital before making films, because Mad Max definitely evokes certain meat-wagon morbidity. It’s like one of those Red Asphalt instructional videos that’s been expanded with a dystopia storyline of law and lawlessness. Blood and bandages and fever sweats is a recurring motif throughout the entire trilogy; a wounded Max slipping in and out of consciousness from a gunshot wound or a devastating car crash or simple dehydration, waking up amidst a tribe of wild kids.

    Here, in the first film, there are such weird bits of coroner-like macabre: is there not some bizarre subliminal link between the road killing of Max’s family and the following scene of him sitting alone as he stretches about a flesh-colored Halloween mask in his hands? Death is everywhere in this film, but frighteningly clinical as well, where hospitals are a place of horror. If limbs aren’t being ripped or sliced off, or the human body violated or mutilated in some fashion, than someone, it seems, is always making verbal references to the matter (i.e. Goose talking casually about a road accident over breakfast or the Toecutter gesturing, “but what would happen if you were to lose the face?!”). And how about those crazy sound effects? Like the moment when Toecutter walks up to the Nightrider’s coffin, we hear this exaggerated screeching on the soundtrack, one that chimes again when the Nightrider is later referenced.

    I could go on and on about the varying details I love about this movie. It is totally savage thriller but, as you’ve studied, a morally conscientious one as well.

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  7. Ivan:

    Thanks for the heads up on STONE. I will definitely track that one down. Sounds interesting!


    Cadet:

    I disagree with you re: THE ROAD WARRIOR that Max has become a one-note character. That may be true at the film's beginning. He's just another amoral scavenger wandering the wastelands. It's his interactions with the settlers that gradually humanizes him, makes him care about something, reignites that spark of humanity that died when his wife and kid were killed. And this is all conveyed by Gibson through facial expressions and body language for quite a fantastic performance. I think there is a fascinating arc going on off his character in ROAD WARRIOR that elevates above a post-apocalyptic HIGH NOON-type deal.

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  8. An outstanding analysis of a classic. I never tire of Mad Max.

    That Halls Of Justice is such a visual symbol to the dissolution of civilization isn't it? I love the look of Mad Max too, just as you said, it is frightening.

    In fact, so frightening, no matter how many times I see this film, I always pray things will turn out differently for Max, especially his wife and child, but it never changes. It's heartwrenching stuff. It's hard to watch.

    To this day, George Miller and Kennedy's film along with Mel Gibson created one of the top ten singular films to have such an influential impact on my pop culture affections.

    That visual acuity, vision, film stock, look, the car, everything about it including Max's effort to hang onto something as traditional and beautiful as the nuclear family in his mad, mad world ... What a film.
    A superb look at MM! best, sff

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  9. Wow, some amazing comments here. Thank you all for these great insights into Mad Max.

    J.D. I couldn't agree with you more about Toecutter. That guy is terrifying in this part, but he also boasts some powerful charisma. I mean, he HOLDS the screen. There's something more to him than your average-screen-psycho. I agree with you that he's quite a good actor; and I've never seen him in anything else.

    Ivan: Thanks for the heads up on Keays-Byrne in "Stone." Like J.D., I'm going to keep an eye out for that one. Never heard of it, but sounds immensely intriguing.

    Cadet: Wow, you wrote two very detailed comments there about Mad Max. I agree with your praise for the film (particularly the dystopian setting and psychological edge),while also lauding The Road Warrior as the second movement in the trilogy, and one brilliantly photographed. It's funny, I saw Road Warrior first and thought it was one of the most demented, disturbing films ever made. Then, of course, I saw Mad Max,and saw that indeed went to a whole other level. Both films are first class, I think, but my appreciation for Mad Max has certainly grown over the years. After watching it again recently for this review, I admire the film even more.

    SFF: I never tire of Mad Max, either. And I agree with you about that Halls of Justice view. I just love that shot, and so I had to include a screen grab of it in my review. It just speaks volumes about the culture that the police station looks so run-down and dilapidated.

    Like you, I find the death of Max's family almost unbearable to watch. I know it's coming (every time I watch...) and it still makes me squirm and sick to my stomach. So heartwrenching...you're right.

    I also agree with your estimation of the film. Mad Max is one of the most brilliant, razor-sharp and original dystopian films I've ever seen.

    Great comments!

    JKM

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  10. This is one of the all-time great films of the 70s and you've done an excellent examination, John. The decade of the anti-hero really was the only period of time that could produce films like this one, I believe. The oil crises (and there were more than one) had an impact (along with WATERGATE, global economic downturns, disillusionment, and the ever present nuclear war threat). Still, I think because it arrived near the end of that distinct period, and while shocking in the sequences you note, it does not end as bleakly as it could have (or as some 70s fare did). Thus, the period's transition (reflected in this movie) sets the stage for the eventual rise of the protagonist -- MAD MAX II (THE ROAD WARRIOR) and MM III (THUNDERDOME) -- which could only happen, IMO, in the 80s. All of these extraordinary films in the series register their volatile times. I mean, no one who lived through the 70s and the 80s would consider either periods to have been quiet and stable. Wonderful look at a remarkable film, John. Thanks.

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  11. Hi JKM;

    I saw Max after Road Warrior and was disappointed (it was the dubbed version, too) - it seemed more chaotic in its storytelling, less focused. And it may be moral, but it is nihilistic. Things are falling apart, and there is no center. Max at the finale has fallen as well. But now I recognize that I was failing to appreciate it for what it is: a Biker Film. Road Warrior is a Western, and a great one, but Max is a Biker film, with all of the strengths and weaknesses of that idiosyncratic and nihilistic genre. Looked at from that angle it emerges as one of the best - okay, probably the best one ever, since the competition for the title is pretty slack.

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  12. Hello, Le0pard13 and DLR,

    You both add some more important pieces in your comments to the context of Mad Max.

    Le0pard13: You discuss the 1970s decade as the one of the anti-hero, and you're absolutely right. There's definitely the vibe here of a Dirty Harry or Death Wish type story: a man going above the law to combat evil; at the cost of -- at least -- his own moral innocence. Like you say, this was a defining issue of 1970s cinema, and very different from the feeling of the 1980s.

    DLR: Your reference to and description of Mad Max as a biker film is also illuminating, I think. You're right: it's intertwined with that sub-genre as well, in ways important and small. I agree with you that the film is moral but nihilist in tone, which can be...bracing. However, I think the choatic nature of the storytelling in Mad Max somehow works for the film, rather than against it, simply because that form echoes the content. Like you, I saw Mad Max after Road Warrior and felt a little disappointed; I had to go back again, sort of with different expectations (as you note), and appreciate it for what it was; rather than what it wasn't.

    Great comments!

    best,JKM

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  13. Jocko8:03 PM

    I love your description of the entire setting being a crumbling reminder of better times, a 'used future' as it were. It gives a real lived-in sense, a tacility, you can definately see the punk influences all over it, that idea of standing on the total edge of the abyss. God, these old jaded 70's dystopian films sure feel topical these days don't they? ;)

    I like this one better than either sequel. Its lean, mean & to the point

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  14. Hello from 10 minutes away from where part of Mad Max was filmed! Thank you for your fascinating insights into this amazing movie. I'm going to do it justice by printing it out & reading it properly, but one thing I noticed up front was the "Anarchie/Anarchy Rd." thing.

    I'm pretty sure this is an in-joke. Where part of the film was shot was near a tiny place called Anakie; ironically known for its children's Fairy Park, a place of gentle non-dystopian fun. http://www.fairypark.com/location

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  15. Jamie Rotten4:06 PM

    John - an exellent review and analysis of Mad Max, it often shocks me how few people seem to "get" this movie particularly the ending sequence (a common complaint seems to be that the Toecutter is killed so quickly and uncerimoniously - almost as an aside, but this is surly missing the point). For me the films power has always come from the fact that the final and most cruel and callous punishment is meted out to Johnny The Boy who is (arguably) the most "innocent" of all the films villans, being as he is the weakest of the group and somewhat of a victim himself, bullied and cajoled into commiting acts of violence (i.e the death of the Goose) by Toecutter and the others, as he is too weak to go against the flow and most likely grateful for the protection they offer him as a member of their gang. This final act is not so much one of revenge but of the complete and total erosion of Max's humanity - I never noticed the "STOP" sign before but shall certainly keep my eyes peeled for it nexct time I watch the movie as it seems to substatiate this theory.

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