Grade My Homework: A film class discussion on the violence in Mad Max
The following isn’t really a traditional review or synopsis like I’d usually post on this site, but it’s a bit of film class homework that I don’t think is going to see much play within the class itself. See, it’s a community college, and it’s in Cleveland, so the bar isn’t low so much as it is just lying on the ground waiting to be picked up and sold by scrappers. Every couple weeks or so our professor asks us three questions, and we just have to respond to one. This time around everybody piled onto the one about Twelve Angry Men (it’s filmed in one room omg how is that possible!?), so I had to give the Mad Max question some love. There’s no length requirement, and I’m not exaggerating when I say the average response is around five sentences. I refuse to put that little work into the subject, seeing as how we have literally only five assignments for the entire semester, and I don’t think most people in the class are going to read this. So I thought perhaps you’d like to. The question is in bold, my response follows. It’s a vague question, and I did the best I could. If you have any feedback for the comments section, that would be awesome.
“Mad Max” presents a classic narrative style and familiar dramatic concept: bad guys attack good folks; good folks are hurt; good guy wants revenge. Is this concept the base of mainstream cinema? Is this what we want to see – to make us feel good? Or, it’s just hardcore action and violence we are consuming?
Mad Max, at its core, is far from a standard revenge story, at least from the “good guy wants revenge” standpoint. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) differs heavily from other well-known vigilante characters in film such as Death Wish‘s Paul Kersey or the MacManus brothers from Boondock Saints. While it’s common to have a trigger event (often the death of a family member) early on in a vigilante story followed by a quest for vengeance that may take a broader scope than initially intended, the story and characters in Mad Max follow a much different arc.
Although the film is set in a dystopian near-future, society is shown as more or less intact in Mad Max; there are still clubs, ice cream shops, convenience stores, and so forth. Max and his family live in a nice house, and drive a nice car. There are long stretches of highway where that society has begun to fade, but Max still works within the confines of a police force that makes every effort to enforce the law by the book. The opening chase where he and several other officers are in a high-speed pursuit with a criminal known as “The Night Rider” ends in the perpetrator’s death, but it’s a clear-cut result of his own actions and Max takes no pleasure in it. Even when the biker gang led by Toecutter comes after the police in retaliation for Night Rider’s death, taking down Max’s friend Goose, Max doesn’t want revenge. He just wants out, telling his boss that “any longer out on the road and I’m one of them. A terminal psychotic, except that I’ve got this bronze badge that says I’m one of the good guys”.
Clearly, this is not a film out to provide its audience with hardcore violence for violence’s sake. Max does quit the force, and tries to get out of town. He takes his wife and infant son on a vacation, and still they are unable to escape Toecutter’s gang. They are pursued, harassed, and eventually his family is senselessly cut down. Only then, in the final fifteen minutes of the film, does Max set out for revenge. And even then, he does so on the side of the law, donning his uniform and hitting the road in the custom Interceptor built to bribe him into staying on the force in the first place. There’s no pleasure in it, and no clever one liners. Toecutter himself doesn’t even die at Max’s hand, but in an accident as the result of his own actions, much like Night Rider before him. There’s no commendation from his superiors, and no satisfaction in his revenge. In the end, Max just keeps driving, on the road to stay like he always feared.
It’s a violent story but not an exceptionally violent film, especially for a low budget exploitation piece made in the late 70’s. The most brutal moments are off camera, and the violence is never without consequence. The gang dies as a direct result of their crimes, and Max’s revenge comes with the cost of becoming everything he never wanted to be.
Mad Max can hardly be grouped in with mainstream cinema however, and the question of violence in the mainstream is much broader and harder to answer. A film like Saving Private Ryan is incredibly violent, but owes that violence to historical accuracy, whereas something like Hostel can claim that its violence is social commentary while reveling in it perhaps a little too much. But then, where is the line between Hostel being dismissed as “torture porn” and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo being preserved in the Criterion Collection as “art”? Film is too subjective of a medium to place restrictions on, and it’s impossible to make a blanket statement about the place violence has within it. In a perfect world, the violence in our entertainment would always serve some sort of purpose or carry a message, but the pool of writers and directors is simply too large to count on every one of them actually being skilled or responsible about what they do. In the end the responsibility lies with the audience, not only to make their own choices about what to watch, but also to choose whether they process or simply “consume” what they are being shown.