It’s not clear how, but an interview with Mel Gibson seems to go off the rails even before it begins. Maybe that’s to be expected.
The 60-year-old actor and director has become a lightning rod for controversy ever since he was recorded delivering an anti-Semitic tirade during a drunken-driving arrest in 2006. “Hacksaw Ridge,” Gibson’s first directorial effort since that year’s “Apocalypto,” has been hailed as a comeback, even as some critics have noted that the extreme violence in the fact-based drama is at odds with its subject: Desmond Doss, an American soldier whose Christian faith — coupled with regret over a violent past — led him to apply for conscientious-objector status during World War II. In 1945, Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving 75 soldiers on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
Gibson arrives for an interview with two of the film’s supporting actors in tow: Vince Vaughn, 46, who plays Doss’s tough but compassionate sergeant, and Luke Bracey, a 27-year-old Aussie who plays the hero’s bullying nemesis. Bracey seems like a pleasant, if extraneous, bloke. Vaughn, for his part, appears to be present for one reason only: to run interference for Gibson when he doesn’t want to answer a question.
God forbid that a reporter should stray too close to the subject of Gibson’s putative “comeback” — the mere mention of which causes him to roll his eyes and say, “Yeah, right.” When asked whether the film’s theme of redemption has any resonance for his own struggles with forgiveness, or whether the movie is geared toward the faith community, Gibson simply doesn’t answer. At those moments, Vaughn seems ready to jump in, unbidden, with long-winded pivots worthy of a political spin doctor.
“To the extent that this is a comeback for Mel, that’s just evidence of the real response that’s coming from audience members who have loved his stories forever,” Vaughn says. “And for those people, it’s: ‘Look — here’s another Mel Gibson movie!’ ‘Apocalypto’ is such a pioneering movie. It’s a game-changing movie. It’s so innovative. And, of course, ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Passion.’ You have here another tremendous story that’s provoking conversation and questions. It’s about real human beings that did real things. So I think that there’s this great response from everybody that they’re being moved by this movie and being very inspired by this movie. I think that’s the biggest conversation, to speak to who we’re showing it to and what we’re doing it for, whether it’s regular audiences or military veterans or faith groups. There’s a commonality. I think that is a beautiful thing, that people can watch a film and take away an inspiration of the best of all of us, the best of all of ourselves. I think that’s a tribute to Mel. It’s a tribute to our story. Ultimately, it’s a tribute to Desmond Doss. This movie will allow a little more empathy, love, healing and understanding to people who are dealing with the issues of PTSD.”
As for Gibson, he seems nervous, slightly testy and with something of a chip on his shoulder, right off the bat. Before a single question has been asked, he positions himself at a conference table and — head defiantly down — starts drawing slashing lines with a ballpoint pen across a notepad.
“The . . . Washington . . . Post,” he mutters absent-mindedly, as if calculating where he is in the tedious but necessary round robin of back-to-back interviews that is the modern movie media tour.
“I guess you can cross that one off your list,” a reporter observes.
“Oh, I already did,” Gibson shoots back, without missing a beat. “Years ago.” Then, after a pause: “That wasn’t nice.”
He continues: “Actually, your paper is a masterpiece compared to the New York Times.” Gibson pauses before the last word to let a slow fricative sound emanate from his lips — fff — like air escaping from a punctured tire, or a man suppressing a naughty word.
Over the course of the half-hour conversation, Gibson rarely looks up from his sketchpad, doodling furiously — and noisily — on what appears to be a drawing of an angry face. A devout Catholic, he seems uncomfortable talking about the film’s theme of spirituality and whether the Hollywood establishment resists movies about such topics.
Is faith, not violence, the third rail of cinema? Gibson answers by repeating the question, and then promptly drops the subject: “Faith is a third rail?”
He is, however, more than willing to discuss the violent action sequences in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Over a directing career that has included such bloody dramas as “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ,” Gibson has become known for the intensity of his violence, as well as the lurid clarity with which he choreographs it, using editing tricks from his early directors, most notable among them George Miller of the “Mad Max” franchise and Peter Weir of “Gallipoli.”
“[The action] almost has to be — I don’t mean to be callous about it — but it has to be like a sporting event,” Gibson explains, calling his mentor Miller a “scientist” of screen action. “You have to know who’s who, who your protagonists are, who’s doing what, what screen direction it’s all going in. In the midst of that, you have to have what appears to be chaos. It’s ordered chaos.”
Gibson laments what he sees as the “violence without conscience” of many modern films. “To talk about the violence question, look at any Marvel movie,” he says, dismissively. “They’re more violent than anything that I’ve done, but [in my movies,] you give a s--- about the characters, which makes it matter more. That’s all I’ll say.”
He is similarly terse when asked about the film’s central irony: that a story celebrating pacifism is notable largely for what seems at times to be an almost unhealthy fixation on blood and guts, one appealing to a sense of physical — that is, adrenal — arousal. “Hacksaw” shouldn’t be an “intellectual” experience, he argues. “I’m trying to get to your animal. That’s it. That’s war. I’m trying to make a visceral, fully emotional, immersive experience.”
Although Gibson says he sees the film as both “cathartic” and “therapeutic,” he readily acknowledges that the grisly scenes may be upsetting to some. At special screenings for veterans groups, he says, the presenters made sure to have mental-health counselors on hand, “just in case [viewers] had triggers or something.” At the same time, the director insists that “Hacksaw Ridge” isn’t a war story at all but, rather, a love story. “Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his brother,” Gibson says, paraphrasing the Bible. “Desmond Doss just consciously did that, repeatedly, again and again and again.” Doss, like Jesus, was the ultimate “superhero,” he adds.
When pressed, Gibson concedes that the subject of faith is an “edgy” one. “But I like edgy,” he says. “Edgy is good. Isn’t that why we work? Isn’t that why we make art? This movie is for the audience. I’m not making it for the elite.” He won’t say who this elite is. Studio bosses? Oscar voters? Critics? “It changes,” Gibson answers, cryptically, “depending on the movie.”
As big a fan of edgy art as he professes to be, Gibson says entertainment alone also is a worthy goal.
“That’s valid, too,” he says. “I forget who said it, but I love this formulation: The goal of filmmaking is the three E’s: First, you entertain. Second, you educate. And the third thing, if you’re lucky, is you elevate. I’m telling a story here that asks a question: What are we capable of, as a species, in an experience that reduces most men to animals?”
Hacksaw Ridge (R, 139 minutes). At area theaters.