For the last ten years, Mel Gibson and Hollywood have been deeply estranged. But this weekend’s opening of “Hacksaw Ridge,” his powerfully crafted, bloody-heart-on-the-sleeve drama about the most heroic pacifist — or maybe the only pacifist — to serve in World War II, marks their official reconciliation. After all the scandals and feuds and recriminations, after the fizzled misfire of a comeback attempt (his 2011 performance as a head case who communicates through a hand puppet in “The Beaver”), after the “interesting” trickle of VOD-ready curios like “Get the Gringo” and “Blood Father,” Gibson, at last, has returned. “Hacksaw Ridge” is a large-scale traditional war film that has been praised by critics, has now opened solidly at the box office, and is a potential awards contender. (Likeliest shot: Andrew Garfield for a best actor nomination.)
That said, the behavior that capsized Mel Gibson’s career will, on some level, never be totally behind him. His infamous anti-Semitic tirade seemed to be expressing powerful beliefs (to explain it away by saying “I was drunk” explains next to nothing), and for those of us who heard the leaked recordings of Gibson ranting at his ex-partner Oksana Grigoriev — every word a raging scream, every word charged with violence — it’s a sound that we’ll never get out of our heads. There are many in Hollywood who won’t work with him again. Yet “Hacksaw Ridge” marks a turning point: the film industry as a whole — as a system — saying, “Okay, it’s time.” As a critic, I can understand why. Mel Gibson is a man who seems ruled by a bottomless rage, but he’s also an artist-star possessed of a furious talent, and there are many who feel that he has the right to put the sins of his past behind him.
It’s worth noting that the estrangement between Gibson and Hollywood was under way well before the scandal. Gibson had been lurking outside the system since at least 2004, when he released “The Passion of the Christ.” That film was attacked in the press, notably in a series of columns by Frank Rich in The New York Times, before it even came out, and when people got a chance to see it, most critics were decisively negative (in my opinion, unjustly). They treated the intensity of the film’s violence as if it were some sort of exploitation movie — the Jesus saga as a debased S&M freak show — when, in truth, Gibson wasn’t turning Christ’s suffering into a religious slasher film. He was trying to restore the primal shock and awe to the New Testament.
When “The Passion of the Christ” became more outrageously popular than anyone in the press might have anticipated, it placed Gibson at the center of a culture war. On the one side were the representatives of the “secular” media, along with a Hollywood perceived (rightly or wrongly) as being hostile to the cinematic expression of faith. On the other side was Gibson, the prodigal bad-boy Traditionalist Catholic who had to go outside conventional channels to make his Christ film (in fact, he bankrolled it himself), but who demonstrated — through the logic of the marketplace, and the symbolic logic of the culture war — that his audience was just as huge and devoted as Hollywood’s. He made an “anti-mainstream” Christian psychodrama that suddenly looked like the new mainstream. (As Cecil B. DeMille, or maybe Michael Eisner, would put it: $370 million in gross domestic ticket revenues can’t be wrong.) Gibson had tapped into a different mainstream, a red-state megaplex Evangelical groundswell. And that set the stage for something it’s easier to see now than it was then.
Ever since July 27, 2006, the night that Gibson got arrested for drunk driving and let loose with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to L.A. police officers, the attitude of the media and movie communities has been simple: What he said was horrifying, and maybe unforgivable. People can certainly decide for themselves if they think that Gibson’s apologies are genuine. But the degree to which he felt the need to make amends — personal or political, or maybe both — is, I believe, embedded in the aesthetic DNA of “Hacksaw Ridge.” His decision to build a brutal war film around a hero who’s a religious pacifist is, on some level, a signifier, a way of saying: “I, Mel Gibson, renounce violence — even in the thick of war.” I’m not implying that it’s a cynical or dishonest film. (I praised it highly in my Venice Film Festival review.) But I do think that “Hacksaw Ridge” was conceived with an awareness of the optics that surround a Gibson comeback.
Here, though, is the other side of those optics. During his decade of exile, especially after the leaked recordings of Gibson, it may have seemed like the whole world saw him as a pariah, but it’s not as if he lost his fans. If anything, the ones who stayed with him grew more devoted. To many of the Gibson faithful who had flocked to “The Passion of the Christ,” the very fact of Gibson’s estrangement from Hollywood now became part of his essence, his mythology. It was a bit of a Trumpian situation: What made him a walking bomb of scandal in the eyes of the liberal secular mainstream was viewed differently by that other mainstream. To them, it only proved how threatening his values were. In his very infamy (and, let’s be honest, in the embrace by some people of the very worst things he said), Mel Gibson was becoming a conservative superhero.
He has been a movie star for nearly 40 years, and some of his most memorable performances — in the “Mad Max” films, the first “Lethal Weapon,” and “Braveheart” — have been as tormented men whose heightened natures push them over the edge of reason. A version of that dynamic runs through “The Passion of the Christ”; you could also say that it runs through the scandals that did him in. Yet in the years since Gibson fell out of Hollywood, the world has changed. The culture war has only intensified. It’s no exaggeration to say that the presidential election represents a choice between not just two very different Americas but two vastly different versions of reality, and that’s the torn universe that Mel Gibson has come back into. The effect has been to redefine him, on the culture-war stage, as a lone-wolf macho religious renegade who stands up for the righteous (and politically incorrect) things that people in Hollywood don’t. Right or wrong, that is now his image. That’s why he is now an apostle of the alt-right.
The irony is that if you look closely, that image doesn’t define his films. Not really. Long before his 2006 tirade, “The Passion of the Christ” was tarred by the media with the brush of anti-Semitism, but I don’t believe it’s an anti-Semitic film; if you’re going to brand it that, you’d have a hard time not making the same case about “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “Apocalypto” was Gibson’s baroquely transfixing blood-bucket Mayan fever dream, and it’s the kind of dizzying smart ride that I wish Hollywood made more of. As for “Hacksaw Ridge,” its hero is a Seventh-day Adventist and a singular breed of braveheart, but that hardly makes him a Christ figure. Maybe he’s simply the man of conscience who Gibson dreams of being. After a decade in the desert, Mel Gibson is finally getting his comeback, but is he returning as a walking sinner or a tarnished saint? It depends on who you ask. What I’m pretty sure of is that if he ever figures out a way to insert that question like a fuse into his work, then ignites it, he might blow moviegoers away.