Mad Max (1979)
Having made it through Mad Max: Fury Road, the latest installment in the series (see my review), I went back and re-watched the original to revisit the character’s humble origins when he first hit the screen back in 1979.
The original was made during the Australian New Wave of the late 1970s and 80s that gave us such thought provoking fare as Breaker Morant, My Brilliant Career, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Last Wave. No thought provoking content here, just pure non-stop action.
Director George Miller, a former physician, decided to make an Australian Western with cars and motorcycles instead of horses. He copied the look of such biker movies as The Wild Angels and The Born Losers and then added the background of Shane and Bad Day at Black Rock.
The film was shot for $650,000 and wound up grossing over $5 million. It introduced a 21 year old Mel Gibson to the world although he and all the other actors had their voices dubbed into American English for the U.S. release. The current DVD/Blu-Ray release restores the original Australian soundtrack.
Although set in the near future, the film lacks the apocalyptic background of its sequels and works purely as a hyperkinetic chase film with the classic Western revenge motive serving as the film’s centerpiece. We have good cop Max taking on a vicious motorcycle gang and their psychopathic leader after they kill his best friend and family.
When Mad Max first appeared, I didn’t care for it. The anarchic nastiness of the motorcycle gang plus the relentless chase footage did not make a favorable impression on me. I didn’t see it again for 30 years. When I did, I found much to admire especially in its comparative restraint and remarkable ingenuity considering its tiny budget.
There is much to be said for low budget filmmaking and the creative challenges that the filmmakers and the performers face. While the sequels (Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome, and now Fury Road) have each gotten bigger and more grandiose, they haven’t necessarily gotten better.
If you’ve never seen Mad Max then you should, not only to see where the sequels came from but to see how influential it was on action movies of the 1980s and beyond. It’s also an adrenaline rush to experience real action sequences not generated by a computer.
Matthias Schoenaerts is the kind of actor whose performances stay with you. After seeing him in the newly released Far From the Madding Crowd (see review on page 12) I was struck by the depths of his talent and the breadth of his roles. Off the top of my head, I’ve only seen four of his films; Rust and Bone, The Drop, the aforementioned Madding Crowd, and Bullhead. Whether likeable or reprehensible, whatever character he inhabits leaves its mark; none more so than Bullhead.
Bullhead, nominated for an Oscar in 2012 for Best Foreign Film, is the disturbingly dark and absorbing story of two men tied by a childhood trauma. It is a profoundly sad and gritty, yet moving drama. Writer director Michael R. Roskam (The Drop) made his feature debut with the film and it was the film that brought Schoenaerts international attention.
I need to be careful not to give away too much of the story because its impact lies in watching the story unfold. In a nutshell, the story is pitted in the relationship between Belgian cattle farmers (who are apparently generous and free-wheeling with the growth hormone injections) and meat traders, and their relationship to the drug dealers who provide them with the Barry Bonds juice.
At the center of these tenuous alliances is a cattle farmer named Jacky Vanmarsenille, played beautifully by Matthias Schoenaerts. He is a quiet, brooding bull of man, constantly hopped up steroids and hormones (before you judge him, wait to see the reason). In the process of a shady deal, he is reunited with his childhood friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. The two are forever bound by a childhood trauma – an incident so devastating their lives are forever marred by it.
As the story unfolds, a murder, within the wider ring of the hormone mafia, sets the police on Jacky and his family. As Jacky deals with the present situation and his past, he can no longer shut the memories down. He is filled with a feeling of foreboding on all levels. It’s as if he’s a time bomb, it’s not a matter of will he explode, but when.
Roskam weaves the layers of the story, past and present, to create a world of crime, heartache, cruelty and vengeance. It is a strangely absorbing story, due in part to Roskam, and in part to Schoenaerts’ achingly poignant performance. It helps that the filmmakers photograph Schoenaerts to great effect, and that Schoenaerts knows how to make the most of it.
Bullhead is not easy to watch. It is disturbing yet utterly moving. It is simultaneously quiet and calm yet raging with anger. Jacky is the victim of a heinous crime, but no one in this story is innocent. All have done something that they will have to pay for eventually. To that end Bullhead plays out in classic tragedian form. It is a fascinating film that you won’t soon forget.