Venice Film Review: Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

Mel Gibson has made a movie about a pacifist who served nobly during WWII. It's a testament to his filmmaking chops, and also an act of atonement that may succeed in bringing Gibson back.

Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” which premiered today at the 73rd International Venice Film Festival, is a brutally effective, bristlingly idiosyncratic combat saga — the true story of a man of peace caught up in the inferno of World War II. It’s the first movie Gibson has directed since “Apocalypto,” 10 years ago (a film he’d already shot before the scandals that engulfed him), and this November, when it opens with a good chance of becoming a player during awards season, it will likely prove to be the first film in a decade that can mark his re-entry into the heart of the industry. Yet to say that “Hacksaw Ridge” finally leaves the Gibson scandals behind isn’t quite right; it has been made in their shadow. On some not-so-hard-to-read level, the film is conceived and presented as an act of atonement.

It should be obvious by now that the question of whether we can separate a popular actor or filmmaker’s off-screen life from his on-screen art doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. Every instance is different. In the case of Mel Gibson, what we saw a number of years ago — first in his anti-Semitic comments, then in leaked recordings of his phone conversations — wasn’t simply “objectionable” thoughts, but a rage that suggested he had a temperament of emotional violence. It was one that reverberated through his two most prominent films as a director: “The Passion of the Christ,” a sensational and, in many quarters, unfairly disdained religious psychodrama that was a serious attempt to grapple with the stakes of Christ’s sacrifice, and “Apocalypto,” a fanciful but mesmerizing Mayan adventure steeped to the bone in the ambiguous allure of blood and death.

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