The Madness of Max

As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken . . . It was hard to know who was more crazy. Me? Or everyone else?

Mad Max – Fury Road

Fury Road opening

Back in 1979 an obscure Australian action movie titled Mad Max hit the screens and launched the careers of actor Mel Gibson and director George Miller. Gibson had done a couple of Australian TV shows and a film called Summer City (1977), but by Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior (1981) Gibson began to make his international mark. Back in 1979 Mad Max seems like more a play on alliteration, but 36 years later with Tom Hardy playing the title role, the term mad takes on a whole level as Miller presents audiences a madness more akin to post traumatic stress disorder, but PTSD Max just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Premiere of 'Mad Max: Fury Road'Prior to making Mad MaxMiller was actually a medical doctor in Sydney, Australia, working in a hospital emergency room, where he saw many injuries and deaths of the types depicted in the film. He also witnessed many car accidents growing up in rural Queensland and had as a teenager lost at least three friends in accidents. While in residency at a Sydney hospital, Miller met amateur filmmaker Byron Kennedy at a summer film school in 1971. The duo produced a short film, Violence in the Cinema, Part 1, which was screened at a number of film festivals and won several awards. Eight years later, the duo produced Mad Max, working with first-time screenwriter James McCausland (who appears in the film as the bearded man in an apron in front of the diner). Miller believed that audiences would find his violent story to be more believable if set in a bleak dystopian future. Screenwriter McCausland drew heavily from his observations of the 1973 oil crisis‘ effects on Australian motorists.

In Fury Road the opening narrative voice over from Max presents him questioning his sanity, “It was hard to know who was more crazy. Me? Or everyone else?” The audience is presented with the ghost of a girl, also known as Glory the Child (Coco Jack Gillies), and a few scenes later Max is haunted by visions of other ghosts, the connection being that these are all people who Max failed to save in previous adventures. None of the ghosts featured are characters from previous movies, and one criticism against the film is that the ghost girl who talks to Max is confusing for both new and experienced viewers. Mad Max veterans were left wondering if that was his daughter? We remember that he lost his wife and a kid “in the roar of an engine!” but was it a son or a daughter that he lost? The answer, it was a son, referred in the film as “Sprog” (Brendan Heath). Oddly enough of all the ghosts that haunt Max in Fury Road, his son and wife are not included, but then again, this is not the first time the storyline has been altered between Mad Max movies.


The root of Max’s madness; the death of Jessie and Sprog.

In the opening narration of The Road Warrior we are told that Max “lost everything in the roar of an engine,” to the image from the first film of his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and son Sprog being run down by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne); immediately following this there is a new flashback shot that was not from Mad Max that shows Max walking away from two graves. In the 1979 film Sprog dies, but in the hospital scene, two doctors confer that Jessie is going to make it, however, she is bandaged from head to toe and looks like she is missing an arm, but nonetheless the doctor’s diagnosis was that she would “pull through.”

Max 1979

In Mad Max, his motivation is revenge. The death of his son is the breaking point in which Max becomes “mad” through anger; his madness is wrath! He acquires the V8 Interceptor and hunts down Toecutter and his motorcycle gang, avenging the death of Sprog and, according the revision in The Road Warrior, Jessie. The first movie concludes with Max heading into the Wasteland and leaving what is left of civilization (and possibly his crippled wife) behind him. The second movie opens with him wandering the roads of the Wasteland, living only to survive. In The Road Warrior he not really that “mad,” but he is emotionless. His primary motivation is to have enough gasoline to continued driving deeper and deeper into the Wasteland, and it is clear that he wishes to do so alone. It is in the sequel that Max as the Lone Wolf archetype is developed.

In the latter three films of the Mad Max saga, Max constantly declines invitations and opportunities to become a part of a community. In The Road Warrior, the villagers of the oil refinery invite Max to become a part of their tribe, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Max has no interest in becoming a resident of Barter Town, and is most reluctant to take on the role of father to the tribe of lost children. In Fury Road, he foregoes another opportunity to be a community leader. As with Miller’s fantastic use of minimal dialogue to tell a story, the final scene of Fury Road screams volumes without uttering a single word; from her new lofty heights in society, Furiosa spots Max disappearing into the crowd and through eye contact and subtle facial gestures both understand the other. She invites him to govern with her, he cannot stay, she understands and respects his decision, and he must move on and keep moving. The core of Max’s madness is understanding why he can’t stop moving; why must he always ride the roads of the Wasteland?


Max’s madness is a story of obsession, and the perpetual journey through the Wasteland is what maintains his obsession. Taking the premise of The Road Warrior, his motivation is the memory of his dead wife and son and the obsession is keeping them at the forefront of his psyche. When Max enters the Wasteland, he has no mission other than survival and driving the never ending roads, and this is how he keeps his emotional wounds open, because to let them heal would be to let go of his grief, and to let his grief disappear would be to betray the memory of his murdered family. Because at his core Max is a good and morally upstanding person, he inadvertently does good for others and in return the people he helps offer him a place to call home.

Max’s mission for “redemption,” however, has been structured as a paradox because there is no way that he can bring back his wife and son from death, and as was illustrated by the ghost sequence of Fury Road, Max is amassing a collection of the dead whom he failed to protect. Despite earning his redemption again and again, Max refuses to heal his mind, and that is the core of his madness. Max, “a shell of a man.  A burnt out, desolate man, a dead man, running from the demons of his past. A man who wandered far away . . . and it was out here in this blighted place, that he learned to live again . . .”


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