This summer, Variety ran a story with a very reasonable headline: “How Does Mel Gibson Still Have a Career?” Not that we needed reminding, but the writer of the piece, Elizabeth Wagmeister, laid out the case for why the Oscar-winner should be ostracized by Hollywood: In 2006, during a DUI arrest, he blurted out some anti-Semitic remarks, and then four years later, leaked audio revealed him hurling racist invective at his musician girlfriend of the time, Oksana Grigorieva, who accused him of domestic abuse.
Those incidents were hardly the only instances of Gibson’s horrible behavior, but after a scant few years in the film-biz hinterlands, he returned triumphant with 2016’s Oscar-winning Hacksaw Ridge. Apparently, nobody in the industry cared that much about what Gibson had done. Wagmeister spoke to Howard Bragman, a veteran PR guy and crisis manager, to see if he could explain why Hollywood hadn’t shunned him in the age of greater cultural sensitivity and #MeToo. “Mel Gibson has proven to be the exception to the rule,” he said. “If there’s a new incident, people in Hollywood who’ve stood by him are going to have to rethink their association.”
In the meantime, Gibson just keeps on truckin’. He has a new movie out Friday, although it’s not nearly as high-profile as the blockbusters of his greatest stardom during the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a mediocre dark action-comedy called Fatman, which imagines an alternate reality in which Santa Claus is a real person… and he’s played by Mel Gibson. I’m only human — I found that idea fairly amusing — but while watching Fatman, I realized that the answer to Variety’s question is embedded within the film itself. In the last few years, whether in big studio comedies or small little B-movies like this, Gibson isn’t so much running away from his controversies as acknowledging them straight-up, flaunting them in a sly manner. He knows you know he’s an asshole; the trick has been getting the audience to laugh along with the joke.
At this point, the Celebrity Redemption Strategy™ is well-established: The disgraced star makes a public act of contrition, expresses the proper amount of contrition, goes away for a little while, waits for audience goodwill to build back up again and then returns in an inspirational project in which he can demonstrate how much he’s changed. But #MeToo altered that narrative: Those bad men aren’t coming back, no matter how much they try.
Then there’s Gibson, whose Hacksaw Ridge told the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during World War II who served as a medic, helping the wounded but refusing to fight. Stunningly violent in the way you’d expect from the man who let the blood flow in Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, a clear sign that Hollywood had decided he’d earned his comeback. Gibson didn’t appear in Hacksaw Ridge, but when he has gone in front of the camera in the last five years, he seems acutely aware of his tarnished image. His strategy has been to choose a series of what might best be described as “Ain’t I a stinker?” roles. Despite all his personal flaws, he remains a gripping onscreen presence, but he’s not so much playing characters as doing riffs on that negative cultural view of him. Sometimes he seeks our sympathy. More often, though, he plays into our worst assumptions about him, as if conspiratorially leveling with us: “You’re right about me.”
The former mode was probably best demonstrated in Blood Father, an uninspired low-budget thriller in which he played an ex-con living alone in the desert, trying to just stay out of people’s way and not cause any trouble. But trouble finds him when his estranged daughter (Erin Moriarty) needs help evading the law and some ferocious criminals. If he can save his little girl, perhaps in some small way he can make up for all the bad he’s done in his life. Blood Father was Mournful Mel, both the character and the actor seeking redemption by appealing to our ingrained sense of sympathy for someone who’s gone through hell. Still, it was easy to resist Gibson’s onscreen penance simply because the movie wasn’t all that good — although it’s worth pointing out that, really, a film’s quality shouldn’t affect one’s feelings about its star’s personal flaws. And yet, that’s one of the quirks of art: It can imbue righteousness and decency onto people who don’t deserve it.
But for the most part, Gibson hasn’t chosen that career path in recent years. Instead, he’s decided to pick parts where he giddily turns into the skid, letting his stained reputation give the performance an extra jolt. First up was 2017’s Daddy’s Home 2, which saw him play the ultra-macho asshole dad to Mark Wahlberg’s alpha-male character. (His casting, of course, was contrasted by having the hyper-sensitive John Lithgow as the father to the exceedingly beta Will Ferrell.) The joke was obvious — “Oh man, Mel Gibson is gonna tear Ferrell and Lithgow’s snowflake characters apart!” — and also a little gross, with Gibson essentially trying to absolve himself of his past bad acts by starring in a crowd-pleasing family film. And yet, Daddy’s Home 2’s box-office success indicated that viewers clearly didn’t have a problem with Gibson the way they did with, say, Johnny Depp. There seems to be this weird societal acceptance that Gibson will be Gibson and there’s nothing we can do about it. He keeps showing up in movies, and we don’t bother putting up a fuss.
Our collective tolerance for his deplorable actions — to say nothing of the alcoholism and bottomless rage that are also part of his makeup — seems to only egg him on, most notably in Dragged Across Concrete, the amoral, undeniably gripping crime-thriller in which he plays a dirty cop who teams up with his partner (Vince Vaughn) to pull a heist. His character, Ridgeman, is a hardass racist who abuses his power — as far as he’s concerned, society is so worried about being politically correct that it’s stopped worrying about putting away the bad guys — and the movie does nothing to contradict his regressive worldview.
Forget a redemption narrative or public acts of reconciliation: The unapologetically sadistic and troll-y Dragged Across Concrete was heightened by our assumption that Ridgeman articulated Gibson’s worst beliefs, not to interrogate them but, rather, to dare the audience into being offended. That Gibson was so compelling in the role only made the performance knottier. Gibson is an asshole, but we can’t help ourselves: He keeps sucking us into his demented vortex.
With Fatman, though, he uses our recognition of his awfulness as the source of the film’s warped humor. As with Daddy’s Home 2, the film bases its comedy on our supposed shock that madman Gibson has been placed into this benign Christmastime environment. The premise has the depth of a Saturday Night Live skit — “Wouldn’t it be crazy if bad-boy Mel were Kris Kringle???” — and it might have worked better if filmmakers Ian Nelms and Eshom Nelms let Gibson go wild. But the truth is, his Santa isn’t even as bad as the one that Billy Bob Thornton played: The character mostly worries about keeping his nice government contract while, unbeknownst to him, a hitman (Walton Goggins) is heading his way. The conceit behind Fatman is that, if there really were a Santa, he’d have to worry about overhead, his marriage and burnout — just like every other working stiff. But anybody hoping that Gibson would do something truly twisted in the vein of Silent Night, Deadly Night will be let down by this fairly innocuous B-movie. He hardly even kills anyone.
For those who whine loudly about “cancel culture,” Mel Gibson is proof positive that there’s no such cabal going around ridding the world of problematic men. He’s still out here doing movies, although outside of Daddy’s Home 2, it’s not as if many people have actually seen his recent work. Nonetheless, he’s got several more films in the pipeline, and that Variety piece confirmed that the remake of The Wild Bunch he was set to direct is still going forward. He ain’t going anywhere.
Most disgraced celebrities try their damnedest to put their past misdeeds behind them, insisting that they’ve changed. In Fatman, Gibson glares and grumbles and eventually picks up a weapon, never letting us forget that what’s funny about the movie is that he’s actually the furthest thing from Santa Claus. He’s not trying to run away from his past — he’s shoving it in our faces.