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The dubious return of Mel Gibson

A historical drama set in Japan, in which the spiritual struggles of a foreign protagonist played by Andrew Garfield provides the central concern of the plot. A passion project stuck in development hell for numerous years made by a controversial director who had previously filmed some part of the story of Christ. Without additional information, it’s impossible to know if this description refers to the Mel Gibson movie Hacksaw Ridge, or the Martin Scorsese film Silence. The differences between the two, however, are more than worth exploring, as is the troubling personal legacy of Hacksaw’s director, especially in light of this week’s on-campus hate crime.

In Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield plays a Seventh-day Adventist named Desmond Doss. Doss enlists as a medic in the U.S. army during WW2, despite his refusal to use or even touch a gun. His strict interpretation of God’s sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” quickly leads him to become a social pariah amongst his fellow training soldiers, who both ridicule and attack him. Despite the British actor’s shaky Virginia accent, Garfield is well suited for the role of Doss. His face projects an aura of sincere, thoughtful and brave innocence, distorted yet unbroken by fear, confusion, and humiliation. His presence provides a much needed, if jarring counterpoint to the later events of the film, the battle of Hacksaw Ridge that the movie takes it’s title from. Here Mel Gibson visually revels in the battle’s exceptionally high casualty rate, the film’s camera lingering lovingly on a dismembered limb here, a slow motion flying corpse there. The director makes about as much effort to humanize the opposing Japanese forces as an early ‘40’s propaganda film might. The viewer, thanks to Gibson, is never unclear about who the the capital B. Bad Guys are.

The six Oscar nominations for Hacksaw Ridge, including Best Director, have shown that for much of Hollywood, Gibson himself is no longer “the bad guy,” having apparently undergone the requisite penitence necessary for an industry comeback. Major public scandals for the director have included mocking gay men in a 1991 interview, and making anti-Semitic remarks after being pulled over for a DUI in 2006. In 2010 he once again fell under the spotlight for physically and verbally abusing his ex girlfriend, and mother to his child, Oksana Grigorieva. When pressed recently to address his past controversies in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Gibson stated “That was like, ten years ago. It’s old Barry, it’s so old. I’ve moved on, and I wish everyone else would.” In Hacksaw Ridge, Dawson’s tough guy commander, played awkwardly by Vince Vaughn, tells the pacifist “I’ve never been more wrong about someone in my life, and I hope one day you can forgive me.” If you apply this sentiment biographically to Gibson, it’s troublingly unclear if he’d put himself in the role of the commander, guilty about his past behavior, or in the role of Dawson, persecuted by a public that just refuses to understand how unfair they’re being towards him.  

Debates around separating the artist from the art are always complicated in Hollywood, where a double standard prevails that forgives and celebrates powerful, moneymaking white male directors and actors for assault, rape, etc…, while blacklisting any female that gets mildly touched by scandal. Gibson’s intolerant legacy is complicated too by his alcoholism (he’s about ten years sober) and professed bipolar disorder. We live in a culture that celebrates forgiveness and second chances (at least for some people) to the extreme. We crave redemption narratives, comeback stories. Gibson, however, is a man who has consistently stretched that impulse to it’s breaking point, and whose behavior raises an important question- can, and if so when, does “forgiveness” become complicity?

This notion of the dangers and powers of forgiveness is explored with refreshing complexity in Martin Scorsese’s newest film, Silence. As in Hacksaw Ridge, Andrew Garfield takes up the mantle of devout and sensitive protagonist, this time with a messiah complex to boot. He and his fellow Jesuit priest, Francisco Garupe (played by Adam Driver) sail from Portugal to Japan in search of their mentor Ferreira, who is rumored to have apostatized. The film is set in the 1640’s, when Christianity was outlawed in Japan, and the two priests must move under the cover of darkness to preach to the small remaining Catholic population. Over the course of the film their faith is tested and explored as their followers meet violent retribution for their beliefs at the hands of the State.

Both Garfield and Driver are tremendously talented young actors, but their half hearted attempts at speaking English with a Portuguese inflection are disappointing and distracting, and play badly in a film that seeks in part to criticize and question European imperialism. A friend told me he found Garfield’s performance to be one dimensional, and I largely agree, but on a purely physical level it’s the compelling one dimensionality of an authentic and intensely distraught spiritual nature.

The film runs long, around two hours and forty minutes, and is shot in a gorgeous, meditative fashion, in stark contrast to the frenetic camera of Scorsese’s previous film, The Wolf of Wall Street. Like a religious service, or a visit to an art museum, this meditative approach can alternate between being profoundly moving and profoundly boring, but its ultimate impression is one of impressive mastery. It’s at its most jarring when juxtaposed with the torture and killing of the Japanese Christian converts.

Scorsese, like Gibson, is interested in the intersection between Christianity, physical suffering, and violence. Their treatment of that intersection differs in a notable way however. Scorsese is a man who is able to keep his eyes and his cameras set on extreme violence longer than most others are comfortable with, while still being able to criticize that violence and its origins in the process. Gibson, on the other hand, is a man who manages to glorify it in a film starring a conscientious objector.

In the film, a character named Kichijiro (played by Yosuke Kubozuka) frequently renounces his faith and abandons those around him in order to avoid death at the hands of the Japanese inquisitor, yet he always comes back to Padre Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield) for forgiveness. Despite misgivings, Garfield always gives it to him, a choice which has profound effects on the course of the plot. How the viewer responds to Kichijiro will depend on their personal beliefs, morality, and considerations, as will their response to the return of Mel Gibson. With that being said, the line that perhaps ultimately best encapsulates the drama surrounding the director is said to Garfield by the Japanese Inquisitor Inoue: “The price for your glory, is their suffering.”

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