George Miller’s Fury Road delighted me in a way that no action movie has done in years. That isn’t exactly a surprise and if you want a review of Fury Road you can visit Red Letter Media, which did a great job with an honest and accurate movie review. No, this is more about the meta of Mad Max.
The movie stands alone but because I wanted to know where Fury Road came from, I decided to watch the earlier movies in the “Mad Max” saga. I also thought it might help me to tease out what I liked about this world. Usually I am bored with the action movie genre. It does not take long to figure out what the rules are, what the narrative is, and where this is going. I am already there, waiting for the movie to catch up.
Because of a movie-site quirk I ended up watching them in reverse order. I knew I liked the mixture of goofy, over-the-top, crazy, WTF elements with realistic, practical elements. I knew I liked the fact that if Max is injured, he doesn’t immediately bounce back just because the plot might want him to. After watching the first movie last, I finally figured out what was intriguing about all of this. There is a method to the madness. There is meta to Max.
Anyone vaguely familiar with this saga knows that the character of Max Rockatansky is crazy because he lost his family and crazier because he cannot fix what is broken. But what is broken? The world? Yes, but not quite in the way the audience assumes. In Road Warrior one of the other characters berates Max because at this point everyone has gone through the fall of civilization and they have all lost people they love. They have suffered without giving up hope, so why is he being such a little punk? The guy assumes the answer to his own question, gets in Max’s face, and Max is so distressed that he punches the guy in the mouth.
Needless to say, this works toward the point of the movie in itself, which is that Max is a weird, broken loner who doesn’t want to have to care about anything.
This raises the question, though: why is he different? Why don’t we dismiss him as a whiny little punk? What would his answer have been? Most people assume they know but nearly every time the viewer is tempted to assume things in a Mad Max movie, George Miller shows them that what was really happening was quite different from the expectation. This is part of what makes the movies odd and entertaining. It’s perfectly possible to take these things as strange elements in a cheesy action movie. They work fine that way. There’s more to it, however.
The answer is in the original movie, though the others point to it if the viewer pays attention. Let’s go down this rabbit hole.
In the original Mad Max the world is falling apart but hasn't completely unraveled. There is no rioting in the little town where Max’s family lives. There are no fires or big fortified walls with corrugated tin. As a Walking Dead fan I wondered whether this was an apocalypse or not. How can you have a proper apocalypse without corrugated tin barriers?
The place is fairly peaceful because it is in the middle of nowhere and the local police force cruises around keeping random crazy people from causing too much trouble in the immediate vicinity. Again, the world has not completely fallen apart yet so people still go to the store and get bread or eat at the one restaurant in town or go to the police if someone wronged them. Things still work well enough that at first the gang of colorful baddies seems like a vaguely alarming but temporary problem, much like a motorcycle gang in a Marlon Brando movie.
However, it soon becomes plain that the dynamic is different. Society is not basically ok with a reckless bad element that just "haven't found their place" the way it is in a black-and-white movie starring Brando. The police (including the young Max) are propping up a failed infrastructure. Help is not on the way.
There are lots of cars, 'splosions, chasing, motorcycles etc. There are all the things that you’d expect from an action movie about fast cars. However, George Miller put many little visual jokes and aberrations in the background that give the viewer clues about what might really be going on. For example, the audience sees a couple reclining in the back seat of a car. The guy’s arm is at an angle that obscures her chest, and his torso is obscuring her other naughty bits. The guy is shown from the waist up.
This is the typical positioning cue for a viewer to assume that naughty bits are implied but thanks to the convenient camera angle we don’t get to see them. We assume what is behind the man’s arm. We assume their past activity. Then the guy puts his arm down and gets up: she was wearing a tube top and shorts and the man was wearing jeans. They could have been eating lunch. They could have been doing anything, but the viewer was putting a narrative onto them. This is a reminder that if we want to know what is going on beyond the basic plot, “Innocent Kid Becomes Disillusioned,” we should not be so quick to assume what is in the obscured spaces in these movies.
Remember, Max’s refusal to answer the direct question in Road Warrior counts as a blank space or ellipsis.
Our main character himself is a sweet kid at the beginning of the first movie. Because I saw the movies in reverse order this was sad in an unintended way. Here he is chattering and laughing and juggling apples, confident that things are going to get better or at least maintain a steady state. If you watch them in reverse order, you know that this kid will end up as a baseline-psychotic burnout with a thousand-yard stare.
Remember the couple from a paragraph ago? The motorcycle gang catches them, of course. You see the gang beating the guy's bright red car to pieces. This is the most visceral scene in the movie, with oil and other vital mechanical fluids splattering all over the place until the car is only good for salvage. The wrecking of the car is symbolic, of course. The audience does not see what happens to the couple themselves, but we again assume. The police (Max and his partner) show up to see the woman passed out and her boyfriend running away across the field, which seems funny at first. The motorcycle gang is gone. The woman curls into a terrified ball despite the officers' assurances that everything will be alright. The audience assumes they know what happened to her until the camera angle allows to you notice (if you're paying attention) that she still has all her clothes on. Her boyfriend did not.
I mention this because it is an unexpected reversal, it rewards the attentive, and because it motions to the point of the movie. A person doesn't have to be physically harmed themselves to lose their mind: it is possible to drive someone crazy by making them lose enough of what they care about, and telling them “it’s alright” after they have seen that it isn’t will make things worse. There is more to this whole thing than that, however.
Max begins to lose things he cares about. After his police-partner meets a lingering death, his faith in the “everything is alright” narrative is shaken. The boss tells him to go on vacation-- what someone in 2015 would call "some mental health time.”
At one point he and his wife are in their bungalow and you hear saxophone music and this is the cue for you think they are having the sexy-times. But his wife is playing the saxophone with great enthusiasm while Max looks at her with the expression of a cat trying to figure out why his human is talking to a piece of plastic. She then calmly sets the instrument aside and the scene begins.
These things are goofy and funny, but they are more than that. They are pointing the meta of these movies, which is more than the fact that a post-apocalyptic world is “not alright.”
The motorcycle gang catches up to Max and his wife and the baby, as we knew they would. Afterward she is dying in what passes for a hospital and the people who pass for doctors are conferring. The kid is dead, she's dying, but she was young and healthy so her organs should be able to save someone else (salvage). They try to decide who has to tell Max and impart the message that "She's dead but everything will be ok."
The camera backs up. Turns out that Max was on the other side of the literal fourth wall and he is devastated but he is also trying to understand what just happened. The saxophone trick has gone horribly wrong. This was supposed to be for your benefit as the audience. Max wasn't supposed to hear it any more than he was supposed to hear the saxophone soundtrack and what first seemed like a trope-- little wifey's death exposition that the audience takes for granted-- tips Max over the edge. It's not only what happened in itself that drives him crazy, it's the action-hero world mechanics. That is what is wrong, that is why we do not dismiss Max as a whiny punk for dealing with the same thing as the other people in his world. He isn’t dealing with quite the same thing. He keeps catching glimpses outside the fourth wall and so instead of becoming depressed or afraid, he loses his mind.
This is why Max’s thousand-yard-stare is the most disquieting when he seems to be looking through the world and at the viewer.
He does not come unglued or shout or give convenient exposition about his mental state the way someone in a movie usually does. What he is thinking seems to be none of the audience's business. The villains are over-acted, Max is under-acted. In this, he is reacting the way a real person would react to a movie world, not the way an action-hero plot puppet would react. That is the Meta of Mad Max.
The villains in these movies are always over-the-top, flamboyant, colorful and played with gleeful relish. They are like evil and dangerous Muppets who want to rob, rape and kill you. Even their names are crazy-muppet-names. They are much more suited to their world than Max is.
The villains act with reckless abandon but Max is not a force of nature or unstoppable. If he tries to do action movie things (swing on a chain across a gorge in Fury Road or have a vengeful car chase in the original) they rarely work. Things that Action Hero Man and his audience usually take for granted are a federal fucking issue for Max and it seems to take him forever to get anything done. When he does finally manage to confront the motorcycle gang, he does not stand tall like Clint Eastwood or the Duke, who are larger than life. He is immediately shot in the leg and while he is on the ground trying to reach for his own gun, they run over his reaching arm with a motorcycle.
A typical Action Hero plot-puppet will bounce back after psychological trauma because that is what the plot needs him to do: he is nominally troubled but otherwise fully functional. He is supposed to bounce back after physical trauma as well. After all, what is the use of a hero who can't run?
Unfortunately for Max, this too is a federal issue. He can be badly injured in an instant but the effects of the injury last. He wears a leg brace in Road Warrior and apparently his leg is never quite right again, which is not surprising for a kneecap shot. He can run for short distances but must soon slow to a walk. Even in Fury Road, his leg is as healed as it's ever going to be (he has "no busted limbs, multiple scars") but still wears the leg harness. The audience gets this information at a permanent cost to Max: if this is anything like the other movies, the words tattooed into his back are not going away any more than the scars and bad leg.
These things are part of the background. They are not the point of any of the scenes they are in. If you want to you can gloss over them. The movies are surreal and funny and if what you want is an action movie with explosions you’ll get it and then some. The weirdness is part of what makes these movies enjoyable.
The other characters have a penchant for telling Max who and what he is. They are insistent about what he is meant to do here. He does not look resolute or heroic. He also doesn't respond in a melodramatic "fighting against destiny" fashion. He just looks dubious. The world mechanics want Max to be an Action-Hero Muppet but he consistently fails to do so unless dragged physically into the plot. George Miller subverts expectations by putting a character meant to be a real person in a crazy world. A real person cannot save everyone, let alone fix the mechanics of his entire world. The concept echoes the "Marlon Brando Will Save Us" mantra from Chronic City. The quick version is that Brando was outside the fourth wall. One of the characters in Chronic City was aware that he was living in a fiction. He claimed that Marlon Brando was not only aware of the fourth wall but also knew about the meta-mechanics of what was going on: during production of The Score Brando became upset with Frank Oz (director) and only referred to Oz as “Miss Piggy.” Brando came on set stripped from the waist down. This bizarre form of protest was Brando proving that even if Oz only shot him from the waist up, the actor had a bottom half. He was not a puppet, not even when the director himself was moved by plot convenience.
Max does not want to get drawn into things. Yes, of course within the regular story he is a reluctant hero or perhaps even an anti-hero. Outside of the movie in itself, his crazy eyes see the strings of yet another story trying to wind themselves around him and does not want this to be another federal issue. Hence his protest, “I’m just here for the gas,” which he keeps repeating in an increasingly discouraged tone.
The character of Max Rockatansky is just aware enough of the fourth wall, the strings yanking on him, and what he fails to be, for these things to drive him insane. He can't save everyone from the world or its sinister mechanics. That is what was lurking in the blank space behind his inability to answer when another character demanded to know why he was malfunctioning as a hero.
If you like a simple action adventure movie, you can assume the character berating him is correct and Max is just a horrible person, much the way you can assume that Brando was not stripped below the frame in The Score because that was never shown.
The Mad Max saga works either way. You can choose to only look at what is shown, or you can peer into in the spaces behind what is shown, which is a testament to Miller’s skill as a storyteller.
The Editor, Ada Fetters has been published in The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Copperwood Review, Humanist Magazine, Niche, Tertulia, Debris, Poetry Pacific Magazine, Pink.Girl.Ink and most recently in Bewildering Stories.
The Artist: Eric Hanna is a philosophy teacher from central Canada. He informs us that his poetic influences include JRR Tolkien and Tom Waits. In his free time he enjoys writing, especially about himself in the third person.