Circumstances prevented me from seeing and writing a review of “Hacksaw Ridge,” Mel Gibson’s fifth foray into directing, which has been playing in Israeli cinemas for the past three months.
Even if this is indicative of a lack of professionalism on my part, perhaps I am using the word “circumstances” as an excuse in order to say that I have an aversion to Gibson’s films – even if more than 10 years have elapsed since that ugly incident in the summer of 2006 when he was arrested for DUI. During the course of the arrest, he assailed the policemen who had stopped him with anti-Semitic and sexist slurs. A few years later, equally ugly details emerged concerning alleged verbal and physical violence toward his then-girlfriend, the Russian pianist Oksana Grigorieva.
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In the end, however, I caved – because how could I, a professional film critic, ignore a movie that is a candidate for six Academy Awards, including best motion picture and best achievement in directing?
And even if it is a fairly safe bet that neither Gibson nor his film will win Oscars in these categories on Sunday night, the very fact that the film is a candidate for six awards – and, moreover, in such important categories – says that a decade was enough for Hollywood to forgive Gibson his trespasses. An Oscar nomination is the most vivid symbol of generosity and forgiveness that Hollywood can bestow on a prodigal son, who ostensibly has repented – that is, regretted his words and deeds, and gave up alcohol.
In the decade of punishment and drought in Gibson’s career, only Jodie Foster gave him a significant leading role, in her film "The Beaver” (2011), in which he played the psychologically unhinged father of a family. But if we needed conclusive proof that now, at 61, he has been forgiven, The Hollywood Reporter recently informed its readers that Warner Bros. is “courting” Gibson to direct a sequel to “Suicide Squad” (which was released last year and slammed by the critics, but still raked in $745 million worldwide).
This, despite the fact that Gibson, on top of everything else, aired grossly homophobic positions to the Spanish El Pais already 1991.
And so Gibson is back, not only as a respected director but also as a busy actor. In the 19th-century drama "The Professor and the Madman," which has already been filmed, he stars alongside Sean Penn and Natalie Dormer. He is also slated to play a grandfather in the comedy "Daddy's Home 2," while in "Dragged Across Concrete" he will play a veteran cop who partners a wilder, rookie cop played by Vince Vaughn. This last film is likely to remind Gibson’s fans of one of the high points of his career as a movie star: the “Lethal Weapon” series, in which he played the maverick young cop alongside Danny Glover as the veteran.
Gibson’s return to the bosom of the Hollywood establishment isn't news that fills me with joy. I haven’t missed him - not only because of his private conduct, but also because Gibson was never one of my favorite actors or directors. As a filmmaker, the only movie of his I warmed to was the first (and now somewhat forgotten) film, “The Man Without a Face” (1993). That film depicted the burgeoning relationship between an adolescent boy and a teacher (played by Gibson) who shut himself away after half his face was disfigured in a fire and he acquired the reputation in the neighborhood of being a monster. There was something delicate about the film – and delicacy has not characterized any of Gibson’s subsequent work, even if I did discern in it a hint of perversion through the depiction of the developing love between the teacher and boy. (Were I to suggest this to Gibson in an interview, I'm sure this would elicit an unfriendly response.)
His most lavishly praised film, “Braveheart” (1995) – which won five Oscars, including for best film and best director – still seems to me like one of least deserving films in the history of the Academy Awards. The film, in which Gibson plays the legendary Scottish hero William Wallace, who led his nation in revolt against the English at the start of the 14th century, testified to Gibson’s skills as a director – mainly of battle scenes. But the skill was devoid of real inspiration and yielded a work with all the depth of a historical yarn aimed at teenagers.
I will say nothing more here about his next two films, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) and “Apocalypto (2006), because enough has already been said about them – especially the one about Jesus. (Gibson is extremely devout; he once declared that there is no redemption for anyone who leaves the church.) However, with regard to “Apocalypto,” which depicted the waning of Mayan culture in a sensational and blood-soaked way, I will note that a racist’s attraction to the exotic is not surprising – see Leni Riefenstahl, for example.
Before I discuss “Hacksaw Ridge,” first a brief look at Gibson’s career as an actor. He was born in Peekskill, New York, the sixth of 11 children. At the end of the 1960s, the family immigrated to Australia. He became famous following his 1979 appearance in the first of the “Mad Max” movies, directed by George Miller. The first chapter in Gibson’s acting career, even it didn’t include any major hits, was his best. In his early series of films – like Michael Pate’s ‘Tim” (1979); Peter Weir’s fine “Gallipoli” (1981) and “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982); and Gillian Armstrong’s “Mrs. Soffel” (1984) – Gibson, whose abilities as an actor I don’t doubt, demonstrated a measure of restraint and youthful vulnerability that disappeared when he became a Hollywood superstar.
A review of his other starring roles fails to find anything that can hold a candle to the films listed above. And even though his decision to play the title role in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” (1990) was considered a bold move, it doesn’t compare to other cinematic versions of the Shakespearean tragedy. Moreover, despite Gibson’s courageous decision to appear in Wim Wenders’ “The Million Dollar Hotel” (2000) and in Keith Gordon's film version of Dennis Potter’s brilliant television series “The Singing Detective” (2003), his work didn't yield the desired results: Wenders’ film is one of his most peculiar efforts, while Gordon’s film couldn't compete with the original.
Among the Hollywood studio films in which Gibson stars, I have a special fondness for Richard Donner’s “Conspiracy Theory” (1997), in which Gibson played a paranoid man who proved that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you. Perhaps because of its bizarreness, the film wasn't a hit – despite Gibson’s performance alongside Julia Roberts, who was still at the height of her box-office powers then. I also have a special antipathy toward the romantic comedy “What Women Want” (2000), which even if it was directed by a woman, Nancy Meyers, was downright sexist – and a big hit.
Meyers’ film chiefly exposed the trait of fraudulence that gradually emerged in Gibson’s acting, in which the restraint and vulnerability of the past was replaced by harshness; this made his performances unpleasant to watch. Gibson’s presence as an actor should have reinforced his status as a star. But even this has a limit, and the 10 years Gibson spent exiled in a kind of cinematic Siberia testify to this.
But the prodigal son has now returned thanks to his fifth film, “Hacksaw Ridge.” To my mind, the inclusion of this movie on the list of nine candidates for the best motion picture Oscar is inherently perverse.
The film is based on an internal contradiction that is so fundamental from a human perspective that the aversion I felt toward watching it was translated into an even stronger aversion when I eventually did view it.
Gibson’s film tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (British actor Andrew Garfield, who has also been nominated for an Academy Award), who insists on enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II even though he is a pacifist and refuses to touch a weapon. The first, most effective part of the film depicts his struggle to overcome the obstacles the army puts in his way, and to translate his pacifist positions into becoming someone who saves human lives by being a military medic.
However, the second half of the film – which takes place during the battle against the Japanese in Okinawa, in which Doss' actions earned him the Medal of Honor – provides Gibson with the opportunity to place his pacifist protagonist at the center of a pornographic orgy of carnage. Heads explode amid the flames and the smoke, and limbs scatter in all directions. Gibson’s fondness for this sort of thing, and his evident delight in depicting it, are so obvious here that I was glad Doss, who died in 2006 at age 87, did not get to see it.
This orgy could indeed testify to skill, but this is merely skill in the crudest and most exploitative sense. Quite possibly, it suggests that Gibson’s destiny as a director lies in the field of summer action flicks. If he is indeed chosen to direct the sequel to the DC Comics hit, he and “Suicide Squad” will assuredly deserve each other.