public morals

Are You Ready for Mel Gibson’s Comeback?

Photo: Lionsgate Premiere

When we first see Mel Gibson in Blood Father, French director Jean-Luc Richet’s stylish exploitation flick that debuted out of competition at Cannes and bows Stateside on August 12, his character is at an AA meeting. Gibson’s head is bowed, and he’s talking about the people he hurt, the kind of man he was while drinking; he’s attempting to both do penance for his past and turn himself toward a better kind of future. Jacked, tattooed, and weatherbeaten, Gibson is playing a man named Link, but he could easily be talking about himself.

Blood Father is a surprisingly good movie — buoyed by Peter Craig’s genuinely funny script, which he adapted from his own novel, and Richet’s frenetic, zoom-heavy handheld direction, the movie has a visceral power far greater than most of the other entries in the dad-saves-daughter genre that arose in the wake of Taken. But beyond that, it’s the first stage in the comeback of one of our most spectacularly fallen movie stars, a perfect vehicle for the cause. As Blood Father plays out, Link shaves his tremendous beard, with Gibson becoming more visibly the actor we’ve known for decades — and Link’s prodigious, almost animal rage, one he shares with his portrayer, is funneled toward a productive outlet, culminating in the necessary cinematic catharsis.

Gibson is undeniably terrific in the role, with the added benefit of playing a man trying to make amends. It’s convenient timing: In November, Gibson’s directorial return, Hacksaw Ridge — starring Andrew Garfield as the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor — opens, and beyond, there’s talk of a Passion of the Christ sequel, which, well, you can imagine where that might be going. Put together, these three projects comprise the first significant attempt at a comeback Gibson’s been able to make since he destroyed his own reputation in one of the most stunning and bizarre scandals in Hollywood history. They also mean something else: Pretty soon, you’re going to have to decide whether you forgive Mel Gibson.

The unraveling of one of our biggest movie stars began ten years ago, when Gibson was pulled over for drunk driving and unleashed a deranged, hyperaggressive anti-Semitic tirade against the arresting officer. Only two years earlier, The Passion of the Christ had become the highest-grossing R-rated movie in box-office history, but its content had also sparked suggestions of anti-Semitism, with many people and organizations accusing Gibson of engaging in a long, costly tradition: pinning the murder of Jesus Christ on the Jewish people.

What’s shocking now, looking back on that arrest, is how Gibson almost survived it. Later that year, his startlingly violent Mayan epic Apocalypto was a critical and financial success, with A.O. Scott writing in the New York Times, “And say what you will about him — about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews — he is a serious filmmaker.” Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee praised the movie; Leonardo DiCaprio was briefly attached to star in his next effort, about Vikings.

But Gibson’s collapse really came in two parts. In July 2010, Radar Online posted audiotapes that purported to show Gibson essentially being the world’s worst person. In the recordings, Gibson hurls slurs against African-Americans, women, and one of the mothers of his children, Oksana Grigorieva, whom he also seems to admit to hitting. Gibson would later plead no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge brought against him by Grigorieva; he would also claim that the tapes were edited, and that he should not be judged too harshly for what he suggested were isolated outbursts rather than a systematic pattern of behavior. But the damage was done, and Gibson’s career flatlined.

In the aftermath of his five-year fall from grace, Gibson’s story became a case study of what happens when a guy plagued by anger and alcohol issues becomes one of the most famous men in the world. Vanity Fair dove deep into the skid, speaking with most of his closest collaborators — nearly all of whom offered up some version of “Mel is a good guy, but he’s got major issues — but seriously, he’s a good guy.” It isn’t hard to see the (alleged) logic of what went down: a) his grueling auteur efforts led to b) renewed drinking, and personal turmoil led to c) the ($400 million) dissolution of his (seven-children-yielding) marriage, which led to d) a big-time crack-up, leaving the guy Jodie Foster called “the most loved man in the film business” a nearly total pariah.

However, while time might heal all wounds, Gibson’s comeback also involves an enabler typically inclined toward forgiveness: Hollywood. Blood Father is the best movie he’s acted in since Signs all the way back in 2002; Hacksaw Ridge is being positioned for awards season and has reportedly been testing like gangbusters. Meanwhile, Shane Black floated Gibson as a candidate to direct Iron Man 4, an idea proposed by no less than franchise star Robert Downey Jr., who has been in Gibson’s corner through his darkest moments.

The Vanity Fair story, as well as Gibson’s individual defenders, have floated the idea that he was mainly trying to “piss people off” — that his slurs and hate speech were chosen because they would be the most potent possible insults, not because they reflected his beliefs. In a fundamental way, the idea does fit into a certain reality: Actors’ whole lives are based on their ability to make others react to their behavior; it follows that this might become, or has always been, either a crutch or compulsion of theirs, implicated as it is in their value and worth to society.

What these defenses don’t account for are the accusations of domestic abuse, a violent and physical manifestation of supposedly empty words, as well as how closely they happen to resemble the common excuses given in situations of domestic abuse. The “provocateur” argument also ignores an area in which Gibson has been consistent over the years: his extreme Catholic traditionalism, which includes attending a pre–Vatican II–style Latin Mass and not identifying with the Roman Catholic Church. Gibson seemingly inherited at least some of that devoutness from his father, Hutton Gibson, a vocal critic of the Church who told the New York Times in 2003 that the Second Vatican Council was ”a Masonic plot backed by the Jews” and that the Holocaust was a myth. While you can’t blame the son for the sins of the father, it’s also hard not to ask what impact the father had on the son — particularly considering the strain of what Gibson said during those drunken rants.

Despite those caveats, Gibson’s corner is very real: Rightly or otherwise, there are a lot of powerful people who believe he deserves another chance, one he’s now getting. If we all knew Mel like they knew Mel, it goes, we’d understand the truth, which is that this is all just a misunderstanding, an unfortunate drunken mishap — and regardless, he’s paid enough for words that weren’t truly his, which came from an intoxicated and warped version of the man they really know.

For the rest of us, who are only familiar with Gibson through his public persona — his films and interviews and outbursts — that position is hard to accept. The reason Gibson’s scandals seem so severe, and why they have come to so greatly define the career and character of such an accomplished artist, is because they are so tangible. We can listen to those tapes and read those words, and it’s hard to feel anything but completely disgusted and horrified by a person so possessed by vitriol. And possessed does feel like the word — it’s as much how he said what he said as the content itself, and his work at the time didn’t do him any favors. Coming in the midst of The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, a pair of films focused on violence to the point of fetishism, Gibson’s tirades seemed of a piece with his art. He scared people, and once you’ve scared people, it’s hard to un-scare them.

But there’s still a way to get people to forgive — or at least compartmentalize — your behavior, and it’s to convince them that you’re worth it. That gets back to the other reason why Gibson’s comeback feels somewhat inevitable, and explains why his disintegration was so spectacular in the first place: This dude used to be really famous. He won Best Director and Best Picture for Braveheart; he was an international movie star who commanded $20 million a role; he was a former Sexiest Man Alive. The industry needs people like that, actors with the charisma Gibson demonstrates in Blood Father and directors who can win Oscars, and neither is exactly growing on trees. If Gibson makes movies that moneymen want to finance, actors want to act in, and the public wants to see, those movies will allow supporters to justify his return to the spotlight and some semblance of normalcy. It’s just another version of the debate over Woody Allen: It’s the moral onus of patronage reductio ad absurdum. Sure, these might be bad people … but their work is definitely good.

For that to pan out, though, it’s going to take an audience, a large audience, swallowing their reservations and going to see Gibson again. While Hollywood figures have made comebacks before — think Alec Baldwin or Robert Downey Jr. — it’s never been quite on the scale that Gibson faces. Should Blood Father fail, we can write it off as another Taken that didn’t take, which is becoming a genre in and of itself. Hacksaw Ridge is a different animal. Gibson’s 60 years old; his days as a classical movie star would be behind him even if the last decade hadn’t happened. But every one of Clint Eastwood’s 11 Oscar nominations have come after that age, all in movies he’s directed. Gibson has been allowed to be a filmmaker again, with the potential for a long and rich career still to come, and Hacksaw Ridge will be a kind of referendum. The people have the power to forgive Mel Gibson. They also have the power not to.