One year, two Mel Gibson movies. In the first, Gibson stars as a man trying to make up for the sins of his past. In the second, he takes the helm, directing the story of a soldier who refused to raise arms against his nation’s foes.
Maybe Gibson is trying to tell us something here. Maybe these films are his joint apology to Hollywood and to his audience. He could be trying to court forgiveness from the moviegoing body and studio system that turned on him years ago, for his unchecked anti-Semitism, for his casual racism, for his threats, both made and acted upon, against his then-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. This could very possibly be the start of Gibson’s road to redemption.
2016’s double dose of the erstwhile (and original!) “Sexiest Man Alive” is delivered through the one-two punch of Blood Father and Hacksaw Ridge, action movies about men facing crises of conscience when called to duty. In Blood Father (directed by Jean-François Richet and based off of the Peter Craig novel of the same name), Gibson plays ex-con John Link, a lonely, worn-down fella whiling away in a California trailer park, taking everything one day at a time as he reflects on the corrosive effect his criminal life had on his personal life. “I did a lot of damage, lost a lot of people along the way,” he confesses at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “Some of them stayed lost. It’s not like they come back and give an ‘attaboy’ for quitting.” It’s a hangdog speech for a hangdog guy, buoyed by a wry sense of self-loathing and an underlying acknowledgement of John’s accountability in his own misery.
In Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson directs Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist who enlisted in the United States Army in 1942 to serve as a combat medic. Seems straightforward enough, save for his pacifist beliefs, which he cited in his repeated refusal to carry a weapon or kill enemy combatants. Roll up to a BBQ joint asking for meatless mains, you’re gonna get laughed out of the place. Sign on to go to war and decline to shoot a gun, you’re gonna have to defend your religion in military court first, on the battlefield second. Hacksaw Ridge is one-part spiritual exploration, on part courtroom saga, and one-part “holy fucking crazy shit” war movie. Guess which part Gibson directs with greater gusto.
There’s a lot about both Blood Father and Hacksaw Ridge that reflects the kind of actor and director we know Gibson to be. He has a long history playing broken men living on the edge, men who will wreak bloody havoc or seek bloody vengeance in response to any threat made against his loved ones: Think Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, the grieving outsider with antisocial tendencies; Thomas Craven in Edge of Darkness; Tom Mullen in Ransom; Porter in Payback. He also has a clear fascination with noble heroes of historic warfare—check Braveheart, The Patriot, Gallipoli and We Were Soldiers. Above all else, Gibson has an abiding obsession with explicit violence, which is evident in pretty much everything he’s ever done. You wouldn’t be wrong to cite The Passion of the Christ as the apex of that particular fixation, but Gibson has long held a fondness for gorily reducing human beings to their component parts on screen.
So maybe if we take his 2016 endeavors together in one tight, dizzying, brutal package, we can just chalk them up to Mel being Mel. Who better than Gibson to star in Blood Father, a Taken take-off made in the Time of the Aging Action Star? (If Liam Neeson can set aside gravitas and respectability just to beat the crap out of bad guys for a couple hours every year or so, then there’s no reason Gibson can’t do the same. After all, he’s been doing it for most of his career.) And who better than Gibson to direct a film about Doss, a martyr by choice, a dude who’d take a bullet from an adversary or take a drubbing from his fellow soldiers than take life? His macabre compulsion for staging creatively gruesome anguish is an essential counterpoint to Doss’s pacifist belief structure, both a validation of his superiors’ fears of sending a conscientious objector into a war zone and an affirmation of the bravery inherent in his unshakeable faith.
It’s easy to look at both films as a concession of his humility, or to wonder if maybe, beneath their surfaces, there lies an actor-director hungry for forgiveness after doing a ten-year bid in artist’s jail. When John Link bears his soul to his fellow AA members, there’s a part of us that only wants to hear Gibson’s unmitigated remorse for his transgressions. When Desmond Doss is hailed for his courage in charging into the fray unarmed and saving over 70 wounded soldiers in doing so, we want to look at Gibson charitably, to see him as the kind of person who, despite his obvious predilection for spilling blood on celluloid, would rather celebrate the preservation of life than its desecration. (If you want to take that charitable read even further: Preserving life is huge in Jewish law, so perhaps Gibson’s decision to honor Doss’s rejection of violence can be seen as a token of reparation for his anti-Semitism.)
But if the self-reflective and socially interpretive analyses of Blood Father and Hacksaw Ridge look good on paper, and boy do they, they aren’t indicative of real change in Gibson’s attitude or worldviews. Don’t call his 2016 flurry of activity an atonement tour—just call it a comeback. (Everyone else is, from Business Insider to Vulture, to Page Six, to The Telegraph.) Blood Father is the kind of small-scale genre movie that scores him credit with both film nerds as well as the general population of action aficionados; Hacksaw Ridge, by dint of its scope and its (literally and figuratively) meaty subject matter, is primed for winning him bona fides in the circus that is the end-of-year movie awards season. If one was to argue that Gibson isn’t trying to resuscitate his star after falling from the heavens way back in 2006, one would be wrong.
If, on the other hand, one was to parse a greater subtextual meaning from Gibson’s latter day endeavors and apply it to his attempt to re-ascend Olympus, they’d probably be wrong there, too. In 2016’s hierarchy of “movie stars who suck at apologizing,” Gibson isn’t quite as bad as Nate Parker, but he’s no Selma Blair either. It’s been a decade since Gibson sent an apology letter to the Anti-Defamation League for profaning the Jewish faith and community. Mere mention of those remarks today just tend to get under his skin, as though there’s a statute of limitations on talking about a celebrity’s past infractions. The Gibson we see in 2016 is a man made sober, but not necessarily a man changed. He is understandably keen on putting his old misdeeds behind him. Anybody would be. But is that the same thing as regret—not to mention contrition? In ten years, with only his recent artistic output, we’re left to decide if Gibson has shed the skin of his old self and become someone new, or if the Gibson of 2016 is the Gibson of 2006, sans the alcohol abuse.
If trusting the word of Glenn Beck doesn’t give you an immediate case of dysentery, then you can comfortably answer with the latter. (You might also want to ask for wipes.) If you’d rather take it from Blood Father, then you can comfortably answer with the former. How else are we supposed to take a film that has Gibson smack-talking his erstwhile cohort for selling Nazi memorabilia and for proudly hanging both Nazi and Confederate flags on the walls? “Still backing the losers, I see,” is easily one of the great pithy one-liners of 2016, and it would be even coming out of the maw of someone other than Gibson, but the cold, decisive, utterly ruthless way he dispatches said cohort layers the film with additional meaning. Anyone else shooting a Nazi to death would be unremarkable. Putting the gun in Gibson’s hand is decidedly more significant.
This, perhaps, gives his presence in front of the camera in Blood Father punctuation, just as his presence behind the camera gives Hacksaw Ridge a murky sense of purpose. Hacksaw Ridge both offers praise for the virtues of pacifism and provides an excuse for Gibson to sunder the human form in an increasingly outrageous smorgasbord of bloodshed; Blood Father, by contrast, shows him make a forceful rejection of the very dogmas that led him to his own ruin. In the spirit of charitableness, Blood Father may just be another job for Gibson on his long and distinguished résumé, but it’s nigh-impossible to imagine that he doesn’t understand what it means to audiences to see him murder a neo-Nazi in cold blood on screen. It’s true that he isn’t especially interested in talking about 2006 on the record, and yet it is also true that Blood Father’s various emotional and thematic pieces sound a whole lot like his personal ruminations.
Maybe Richet just knew what he was doing seeking out Gibson to play John Link, but maybe Gibson knew what he was doing by accepting the part. He certainly knew what he was doing by making Hacksaw Ridge, a film that captures all the contradictions and complications of his persona without ever featuring him in a single one of its frames. In the duo of Hacksaw Ridge and Blood Father we see a sincerity that his letter to the ADL lacks: Whether we forgive him or not for his wrongdoings, these films are a clear representation of who Gibson is as both an artist and as a human being. Take him; leave him: That’s a personal choice. But it’s hard not to admire the relative candor of these movies in the year where Nate Parker played Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation. John Link is much less generous to Gibson than Turner is to Parker, a fictional repentant sinner versus a historical figure of heroic resistance.
Blood Father and Hacksaw Ridge lack The Birth of a Nation’s vanity. Gibson cedes the role of Christ figure to Garfield and keeps the role of the contrite ex-con and alcoholic for himself. There’s little chance of him revisiting the damage he incurred through his actions and once again seek out atonement in the court of public opinion, but in the meanwhile, his art is apology enough: Gibson isn’t willing to talk about his trespasses, but he’s willing to make movies that address them, and besides, the truth is that if Gibson ’16 is new and improved or isn’t, Blood Father and Hacksaw Ridge have helped him come back, which is to say that they have allowed him to rehabilitate his image without having to openly acknowledge his offenses. Such is the Hollywood justice system, unfortunately: You can do awful things and your career ends up in only a temporary holding pattern. In lieu of amends, the art will have to do.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.