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Suffering is Necessary: The Extraordinary Personal Cinema of Mel Gibson

A former schoolteacher with extensive disfigurements, the terrible result of a car crash, is shunned by a gossiping community. A freedom fighter in medieval Scotland throws out colonialist overlords and is hung, drawn, and quartered in reprisal. Jesus Christ redeems humankind in a blood-soaked retelling of the Passion Play. A young Mayan father must run a savage gauntlet through the jungle, in a bid to return home to his wife and child, having been abducted along with his tribe with the intention of being served up as human sacrifice to the gods. A World War Two conscientious objector, who abhors violence and refuses to hold (never mind fire) a rifle, signs up for the good fight and ends up a decorated hero. Mel Gibson is a gifted storyteller of impeccably crafted, strikingly personal cinema. His films have consistently provided fresh takes on generic material and they are accompanied by unforgettable, often extremely gory, imagery that hammer home his fixation on hope and suffering as the gateway to higher meaning.

The Man Without a Face (1993), Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Apocalypto (2006) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016) — each in their own way details the search for moments of grace through trial and tribulation. Suffering is necessary. Suffering has spiritual value. It has unique power, boasts tremendous moral force. Moments of grace are attained that others cannot sully. That is the goal. Suffering, too, enables characters to transcend their experiences, to emerge stronger, vindicated, triumphant. Braveheart’s William Wallace and The Passion of the Christ’s rabble-rouser Jesus of Nazareth are transformed into untouchable beings. They become truly giant, mythic figures; men whose influence will live on far beyond the gruesome circumstances of their exits from this world. The death-cry “freedom!” and Christ’s agonized plea to his heavenly father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” — In these pivotal moments, we are given heroes undefeatable even in death. 

Let’s rewind a bit. Let’s go back to the start. 1993’s The Man Without a Face is a humble, ensemble-led debut. At first glance, it appears the outlier of the bunch. But Gibson’s typically tortured take on the coming-of-age story, based on the 1972 novel by Isabelle Holland, fits with the rest. In this nostalgically photographed, 1960s-set drama, an ex-teacher (played by Gibson) befriends young lad Chuck Norstadt (Nick Stahl) and reluctantly agrees to help him study for an entrance exam to a military academy. Neither is good around people and they find solace in each other’s company. The townsfolk find out and believe, given the teacher’s murky past, that transgression has taken place. The major theme in The Man Without a Face is trust. The entirely healthy and innocent surrogate bond between McLeod and Norstadt cannot be broken and helps them heal their psychological wounds. 

The debut established a preference for outsiders or rebels, though in subsequent projects these character types are tied to the grander frame of the hero narrative. More specifically, the theme related to trust is very much trust in one’s own beliefs and instincts. This steadfast faith, reliance on gut feeling, unites such differing men as the socially maligned McLeod, sword-wielding William Wallace (Gibson), revolutionary Jesus (Jim Caviezel), desperate dad Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), and the astonishingly brave Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). For these men all achieve grace through their various actions. It goes without saying, Jesus’ redeeming of all humankind through his predestined sacrifice makes him the ultimate Gibson hero. 

This running motif marks the director as arguably the most compelling maverick operating in mainstream U.S. film today. That the work finds a wide audience should not discount the artistry. As with The Passion of the Christ, which had the cast speaking longtime dead Aramaic and Latin languages, his Mexican action-adventure, Apocalypto, saw indigenous actors speaking in regional Yucatec Mayan. The use of subtitles in both productions did not ward off potential audiences and neither did it have them running from screens upon learning this fact. Any which way you skin it, these are bold decisions in an industry often obsessed with dumbing things down. Without complete control over the material, the pressures to use the English language would have been so great that a lesser (and less-confident) filmmaker would have relented and conceded the vision and compromised. That vision paid off: Both films were number one box office hits. 

A devout Catholic — and a Catholic artist — he is undoubtedly, sitting in the pantheon of deeply spiritual filmmakers like Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), Bresson (Au hasard Balthazar, 1966), and Malick (The Tree of Life, 2011). But comparisons to the notoriously volatile rebel Sam Peckinpah are most inviting, and more revealing. The influence of Old Hollywood’s past masters such as John Ford is readily apparent, for an Irish sentimentality, warmth and humour exists in the lighter moments of Gibson’s films, which echo as distinctly Ford-like. Early gigs headlining what are now considered classic pictures for Aussie New Wave maestros George Miller and Peter Weir left aesthetic traces in how Gibson cuts and paces action and achieves atmosphere through shot composition. Yet the febrile, Jekyll-and-Hyde tensions in Mel Gibson’s films leads us to ponder him as the neo-Peckpinah. As different as they invite similarity, it made all the sense in the world and then some, when the former was associated with Warner Bros’ touted remake of 1969’s revisionist western masterpiece, The Wild Bunch (reported widely last year in the press). “Bloody Sam” and “Mad Mel” meet. It is a salivating prospect, no? 

While the latter burned his bridges with almost nihilistic vim and died a forgotten alcoholic in 1984, his career well and truly down the pan, Gibson is the model of professionalism on set. Neither did Peckinpah have a global profile (nor hundreds of millions in the bank). He only ever showed occasional flashes of brilliance, his movies disrupted by self-destructive behaviour; studios and producers often took away the pictures and allowed them to be finished by others. What unites the pair most of all is the willingness to mine inner turmoil, a seething inner-rage, and turn it into art, making cinema which reads like personal testaments on the highs and lows of being. While these attributes are not prerequisites to greatness, they undoubtedly bring something vital to the table, an ingredient that makes them stand out from the crowd. It is curious too, their shared preference for slow-motion at crucial points of violence. It’s a standard enough film technique (Peckinpah lifted it from Kurosawa), but in their hands it invites an evaluation that the agony and heightened drama must be exalted somehow, the pain prolonged and extended to thump us with full force, masochistically indulged. For brutality is raw naked truth. Far from macho posturing, it is the height of masculine sensitivity and unerringly poetic.

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About Martyn Conterio

Martyn Conterio is a freelance writer focused on genre cinema. He is the author of two books to date, on Mario Bava's Black Sunday (2014) and George Miller's Mad Max (2019), and has contributed to several other book projects.

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