Every society is subject to “haves” and “have-nots.” Dystopian, near-future societies are certainly no exception. Mad Max (1979) shows just how unaware the “haves” are of what they have until it is gone.
The dystopian world of George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) is destined to collapse. Its authorities claim to pursue peace and justice in society, but in practice, are held back by an ineffective judicial system. The Main Force Patrol (MFP), the police force, has no faith in itself. It is also morally bankrupt, giving no credence to the wanton death and destruction its officers cause as they conduct their high-speed road chases. The MFP is also bent on coaxing the film’s main character, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), into staying on the force simply to fill superior officer Fifi Macafee’s (Roger Ward) vision of a hero who can restore hope and trust to the people they protect.
Fifi thinks that is what they need. A hero, like in the “old days,” when one man would come riding in to thwart all the bad guys and rally the people. Little does Fifi know, though, that what he is asking for cannot possibly exist. Not when the police are crippled by an ineffective and nonsensical judiciary system that lets suspects like Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) free even though he can link them to the bigger names they are after.
Mad Max is different because it took the revenge film model and made it different by putting into some cool looking cars in a dystopia that was different enough to be interesting but similar enough to the real world to be harrowing. It pushed past its film contemporaries in spite of its low budget thanks to its high velocity and optimal utilization of explosions. The characters are flawed but relatable, and give some insight into just why, perhaps, the society the viewers’ inhabited might be on the brink of collapse just as well.
Pretending Everything Is Fine
Pretending like everything is okay is a well-worn trope in dystopian fiction. Going along with regular daily life with the world burns around them is typical of the “haves” in every society, dystopian or otherwise. Max and his family are no exception in Mad Max. The film is designed to illustrate this harshly. They live in a seaside home with an impeccable view, surrounded by lush forest and filled with diverse plants and other homely accouterments. Max and his wife Jesse (Joanne Samuel) wear nice clothes and drive a nice car. Everything is picturesque for them.
Meanwhile, the bikers of Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and Bubba Zanetti’s (Geoff Parry) gang are dirty, rude, vulgar, and live squalor conditions in the desert. Nothing about their lives seems pleasant, which is likely a major contributing factor to their propensity towards crime and mischief.
Of course, none of the “haves” to take note of this. In fact, they seem gleefully unaware. Max and Jesse have no reason to feel concerned patronizing an auto shop in the middle of nowhere, an area that visually implies it is in the realm of the “have-nots.” More so, Jesse has no fear of driving into town by herself with her baby to find some ice cream. It is this total misunderstanding of her place in society compared to the place of most others that completely dooms them.
Bad At Pretending
Everything is evidently not okay. While it is not made clear outright, Max is considering leaving the MFP at the onset of the film. There is clearly some kind of tension between Jesse and him over it, although the exact source that tension is not enumerated. The assumption is that she thinks his job is too dangerous and wants him to step down. He clearly agrees and wants to step back from the danger he is so good at out-maneuvering.
Being conscious of the danger an MFP officer endures on the road is not groundbreaking. It does not imply Jesse and Max understand the deeper harm his occupation causes by the societal stratification it perpetuates. Being an officer of the law is dangerous, but being an affluent individual whose job puts them in constant conflict with the poor is more dangerous. It serves simply to solidify the comfort the Rockatansky family and others like it enjoy while it vilifies all who live like Nightrider (Vincent Gil), the sick and brainwashed motorist of the film’s iconic opening scene.
Jesse and Max are so confident in the safety of the bubble-world they have entranced themselves in that they take no notice or care of their baby son Sprog (Brendan Heath) playing with a handgun. Meanwhile, the officers of the MFP are so caught up in their worldview that when Max’s best friend Goose (Steve Bisley) is forced to let Johnny the Boy go free after being arrested at the scene of a crash, they do only two things: they blame the possible rape of the woman he was found on her assumed personal sexual history, and they assume Johnny the Boy is a willing and awful criminal just by the look of him.
After Goose is killed by the higher-ups in Johnny the Boy’s gang, Max and Jesse try to run away from their feelings while Max is given some time to think about whether he truly wants to quit the MFP. His decision is made for him when his wife and son are also killed by these same ferocious bikers. Just like Max had always feared he might be susceptible to, he loses his mind and becomes absolutely obsessed with roaving the roads to find his family’s murderers. What is interesting about Mad Max is not that it spends its final 20-30 minutes as a revenge film. What is interesting is that Max takes his anger and his murder beyond revenge.
He goes off and becomes the hero Fifi wanted. The legal system is probably completely dismayed, but Max kills Toecutter and Bubba Zanetti and ends their reign of terror as well as their brainwashing of otherwise potentially innocent people. He does not stop there, though. Mad Max goes on to find Johnny the Boy too, the last member of Toecutter’s gang and the one Max possibly blames for getting Goose killed and starting all of the turmoil. Killing Johnny the Boy is not about revenge anymore though. Revenge was exacted when Max killed the ones directly responsible. This kill is about rage and bloodthirst.
In Johnny the Boy’s final moments, Max learns that the kid is not a very willing participant in his gang’s antics. He is often speaking out against their vicious ways and is himself mentally ill, and cannot well control himself all of the time. Max just does not care. He brutally murders Johnny the Boy in an explosion while giving him the false sense of hope that he can use a saw Max provides to either cut the chain bounding him to his car or cut off the limb. Max may have ended Toecutter’s gang and made a hero of himself, but at the cost of his own sanity, and through proving it does not matter who the individuals are that inhabit the lower echelons of life. To the “haves” of this world, if they are there, they are of lesser value than them and their loved ones. That is what has put Mad Max‘s dystopian near-future Australia on the brink of collapse.
Jason is a graduate student at Binghamton University studying public administration. His mission is to find the universal values in the fictional worlds we love so we can make our real world better and more full. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.