By putting aside Mel Gibson the controversial public figure, and instead focusing on Gibson the filmmaker, one could evaluate his unique set of pictures to find an outstanding body of work. In just four features, the director—and often writer—has developed a cohesive, and ultra-compelling exploration of human injustice and tyranny, with a profound devotion to the concept of salvation by spiritual values and faith. He has displayed an obsessive and exhaustive attachment to historical authenticity. And stylistically, Gibson has emerged as a gritty, uncompromising visionary with an eagle eye for the epic form—a sort of hardcore heir to Cecil B. De Mille.
Gibson’s little-known helming debut was the intimate and restrained The Man Without a Face in 1993. Adapted from an Isabel Holland novel, the story centers on a young boy, Chuck, who feels trapped inside his large, blended family. Yearning to leave, and enroll in boarding school, Chuck approaches McCloud (Gibson), a disfigured former schoolteacher, for tutoring help. McCloud reluctantly accepts, and the two develop a kind of father-son relationship. In the hands of another director, the material could have easily turned into soapy melodrama, but Gibson handles it with assurance, nuance, and poignancy. The film is rife with raw emotional content, as displayed by both the young Nick Stahl’s and Gibson’s own performances. Moreover, Gibson showcases his natural instinct to highlight themes out of the ordinary. In The Man Without a Face, he comes to develop his own brand of layered, timeless storytelling. Indeed McCloud is a pariah. His troubled past makes him a recluse, held at a distance by the town’s locals. McCloud’s hideous scars are a physical manifestation of his psychic pain. This concern—of the body suffering for the mind—recurs in Gibson’s work. In fact quite logically, given his most infamous film, The Passion of The Christ (2004), the typical Gibson hero is modeled on Jesus Christ. He undergoes an ordeal that is not simply mental and spiritual, but also manifest in physical hardship. It is only through that ultimate layer of violence that he can claim redemption. In The Man Without a Face, like in the archetypal tale of Christ, the individual accepts an injustice, and has a distinct relationship with the perpetrator of that injustice. Yet, before tackling the story of Christ itself, Gibson first explored the destiny of another Christ-like hero—William Wallace, a 13th century Scottish warrior who led his people in an uprising against the oppressive King of England.
It’s easy to see why Gibson chooses mostly historical and epic material. Such sweeping stories are perfect vessels to deal with the heightened emotions and heroic values that he favors. The earnestness of times long gone allows him to speak openly of mankind’s aspiration toward higher spiritual enlightenment. Furthermore, the detailed and often violent historical background allows for thrilling plots of political tensions, battles and wars, violence and death, moral and religious decay.
In Braveheart, William Wallace (Gibson) wishes only to live off the land of his ancestors and marry his childhood love. But when she’s slaughtered by British soldiers, Wallace embraces his calling—spearheading a rebellion against the oppressor. Soon he has unified much of Scotland. In the film’s finale, Wallace, captured by the King of England, is about to be publicly executed. His final chance to save himself is to recognize the King’s authority and beg for his mercy. Wallace refuses and instead calls out for “Freedom!” Faithful to his ideals, Wallace becomes a beacon of hope for future generations, a man who would rather sacrifice himself than conform or apostatize. And moments before he is beheaded, Wallace has a final, heaven-like vision of his deceased wife. To Gibson, there might be earthly suffering, but beyond, there will be divine salvation. This discourse is, naturally, anchored in Christianity.
And with The Passion of The Christ (2004), Gibson finally tackles his constitutive subject of inspiration. He rigorously adapts his story from the New Testament Gospels. Unlike other directors, he chooses to solely focus his picture on the events of “The Passion”, some of the most intense and violent moments—the last moments—of Jesus’ life. The Passion shows Gibson’s dedication to historical authenticity. It should be noted that historical authenticity is quite different from historical accuracy. Authenticity refers to the detailed rendering of the mood, the way of life, the state of mind of a specific period. Famously one of Gibson’s primary tools in achieving the picture’s authentic immersion is the use of language. The Passion is scripted in two languages, now dead—Aramaic and Latin. The result is spellbinding; as a viewer, you become more like a witness than an audience. And somewhat more controversially, The Passion’s graphic violence is another way for Gibson to convey reality. It is gruesome, repetitive, and explicit. Gibson’s representation of Christ is among the bloodiest I’ve seen. Here, the excess of violence is inflicted upon both the film’s hero and passed along to the audience. We feel, quite viscerally, what Jesus went through. We experience a story we’ve been told over and over in a fresh way.
And in Apocalypto (2006), Gibson follows through with his trend of re-creating bygone eras. Here he chooses the twilight of the Mayan culture. A cast entirely comprised of Native Americans and Central Americans delivers a script written in Yucatec Maya. On the surface the picture is a thrill ride—a survival story about an innocent man, Jaguar Paw, fighting against all odds to save his family. But Apocalypto actually makes a much broader statement. It starts with a quote from Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” Gibson explores the Mayans’ auto-destructive impulses—degradation of the environment, overpopulation, excessive consumption, human exploitation. On the topic Gibson suggests that “people think that modern man is so enlightened, but we’re susceptible to the same forces [as the Mayans] – and we are also capable of the same heroism and transcendence.” Indeed the picture ends on a positive note. Jaguar Paw is reunited with his family, as they seek a new beginning (in Greek, “a new beginning” is in fact the meaning of apocalypto).
Gibson shoots his epics in a very unclassical way. His style capitalizes on the immediate. Among his most striking trademarks is his use of tight framing. Gibson maintains tension with frequent close-ups, breaking down the geography of a scene (clear geography being one adage of classical epic cinema). Gibson’s close-ups are expressionistic and refer to what he calls his particular “filmic storytelling.” His shooting style is such that he constantly shoots multi-camera, in an effort to capture the raw energy of a moment. Furthermore Gibson’s vision of the wide shot is very claustrophobic. If you look closely you’ll see that most of the wide shots in his films are closed off, either by extras or buildings. There is no dead space. Even his most intimate scenes are charged with high emotion, tension, romance, grace.
The lyricism of the mise-en-scène is another Gibson trademark. He juxtaposes a very immediate, authentic shooting style with utterly poetic lighting. The camera captures the scene with suspense and occasional handheld quivers, but the romantic quality of the image is undeniable. In the case of The Passion, Gibson and DP Caleb Deschanel carefully constructed oil painting-inspired lighting, only to shoot them with distinctly modern style.
Mel Gibson’s pictures are some of the finest instances of a reinvigorated epic cinema, one whose surface is as worn out and chaotic as the times it depicts. Gibson shows that, in order to be alive again, History must be treated not with reverence or classicism, but with passion, vigor, and edge.