There’s a scene in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973) in which the Italian American protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), holds his hand over a candle flame, testing whether he’ll be able to endure the fires of damnation that he is sure await him.
Mel Gibson has been doing the same thing — metaphorically speaking — throughout his career.
The actor is a curious case, a man who for years was widely regarded as a swell fellow, bon vivant, clever cutup and God’s gift to women. And yet there’s a darkness beneath his capering that comes through loud and clear in his movies.
Has any other actor so frequently used his films to probe his terror of hell, an eternity of both physical and emotional anguish?
A partial list of the movies in which Gibson’s characters have undergone excruciating torture include the first “Lethal Weapon” (electrical shock), “Braveheart” (the agony of being hanged, drawn and quartered) and “Payback” (his character gets beat up and shot repeatedly in the film; at one point he’s tied in a chair while his toes are hammered).
Even those films which Gibson directed but does not appear in feature plenty of gruesome physical torment. In his Mayan epic “Apocalypto” peaceful villagers are captured and horribly abused by a war party from the big city.
And his “The Passion of the Christ” can only be described as religious torture porn. The film isn’t about redemption, forgiveness or any of that wussy stuff. No, it’s a ghastly blow-by-blow account of the tortures Jesus (James Caviezel) endured at the hands of the Romans (and the Jews, let’s not forget). The scourging scene lasts nearly a half hour and treats us to the sight of pieces of Jesus’ skin being ripped off by the enthusiastic whip wielders. Oddly enough, Gibson devotes far more time to the whipping than to the crucifixion, but then he’s always been drawn to intimate man-on-man torture.
But it isn’t just physical pain that consumes the Mel-ster. Emotional agony is just as horrific. In “Conspiracy Theory” he plays a madman injected with psychotropic drugs. In “The Man Without a Face” he was a horribly scarred loner (in the novel the character was gay…apparently that was too much for Gibson, who played him as straight).
And perhaps Gibson’s best moment ever on film came early in “Lethal Weapon” when his Martin Riggs, devastated over the death of his wife, sits on a sofa in his beachside trailer and tries to find the courage to blow his head off with his police handgun. (An acquaintance who was on the set claims that Gibson showed up that day intoxicated and naked and tried to convince director Richard Donner that he should do the scene nude. Cooler heads prevailed.)
Currently he can be seen in Jody Foster’s “The Beaver” playing a family man and executive so severely depressed he tries to hang himself.
Where does this obsession come from?
Religion, of course.
Gibson is Roman Catholic, but not your garden variety Roman Catholic. He’s been heavily influenced by his father, Hutton Gibson, an old-school Catholic of the Latin Mass, everyone-but-us-is-going-to-hell variety who denies the Holocaust and embraces Sedevacantism, the belief that the last few Popes have been imposters.
I can’t help wondering how much of the Gibson’s recent misbehavior — alcoholism, anti-Semitic outbursts and vile telephone harangues delivered to (and recorded by) his one-time squeeze and mother of his child — are triggered by the fight going on inside him, a fight between his essential affable nature (his coworkers, among them many Jews, seem to love him and have been astoundingly loyal during his recent travails) and his sense of duty to his father.
Honor thy father. That’s a biggie. Except that when your father is Hutton Gibson it means embracing some looney, hate-filled notions.
Small wonder Gibson drinks. Small wonder that when he does, he spouts the nasty stuff drilled into him by Daddy.
| Robert W. Butler