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The Passion of the Gibster

The Passion of the Gibster

©Summit Entertainment LLC.

No matter how you feel about Mel Gibson as a person (reactions range from “adore” to “abhor,” and those are only the A’s), “The Beaver” proves he’s one hell of an actor.

In fact, were it not for his well-poisoning off-screen misbehavior, I’d predict the Gibster nabbing an Oscar nomination for his performance as Walter Black, a severely depressed toy company executive in the new film by Jody Foster.

Here Gibson registers a degree of mental anguish that is shocking in its all-consuming misery. In his eyes there is so much hurt, fear and weary resignation that your first impression is that his recent public humiliations (drunken driving, anti-Semitic remarks, crazy violent telephone rants to the mother of his youngest child) have done a devastating number on the formerly cocky movie heartthrob.

Another explanation is that he’s just a really good actor whose talent has been too often hidden by his seductively charming screen persona.

Check out the astonishing dexterity with which Gibson negotiates “The Beaver’s” big conceit. Kyle Killen’s screenplay finds the suicidal Walter, estranged from his family, picking up a ratty old hand puppet in the shape of a beaver and talking through it.

The Beaver is chatty, confidant and optimistic. The people Walter encounters — family, employees — are expected to talk to the Beaver. Walter is a mere observer.

Watching this performance is really disturbing. When the Beaver is talking the tendency is to look at the puppet, ignoring the man who is animating him. Which, of course, is precisely what Walter hopes his friends and loved ones will do.

But of course our attention is invariably drawn to the charismatic Gibson. That’s what movie stars get paid for.

Truth be told I like Gibson’s performance here much more than I like the movie it’s in. But watching him negotiate the hellish levels of Walter’s depression, I once again had to acknowledge that when it comes to depicting suffering on screen, few actors can match Gibson’s track record.

 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). He spent half the “Mad Max” movies looking like a well-used punching bag.

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 other wussy stuff. No, it’s a ghastly blow-by-blow account of the abuse Jesus (James Caviezel) endured at the hands of the Romans (and the Jews ... more on that later). 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 legionnaires. 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 as “The Beaver” shows us, it isn’t just physical pain that consumes Gibson. 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 one too many afflictions for Gibson, who played him as straight.)

What’s going on with this guy?

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.

I think Mel Gibson has been doing the same thing — metaphorically speaking — throughout his career, using his films to explore his own terror of hell.

Gibson comes from a family of old-school Roman Catholics of the Latin Mass, everyone-but-us-is-going-to-hell variety. His father, Hutton Gibson, is a Holocaust doubter (in one of his few published interviews he argued there was no way all those Jews could have been killed by the Nazis) and a Sedevacantist who maintains that the last few Popes have been illegitimate imposters.

Hutton Gibson’s movie star son has donated millions to create a church and school where old-school Catholicism is practiced.

Moreover, Gibson triggered a firestorm of controversy when it was revealed that his “Passion” was heavily inspired by the mystical writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a sainted 19th-century German nun whose work has been used as a justification of anti-Semitism.

For a time prior to the film’s release it was widely feared that “The Passion” would blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. As it turns out the finished film wasn’t ant-Semitic, at least not overtly so, but there remains in it a brief shot of Jews in Herod’s courtyard building the cross which Jesus will carry to Golgotha.

Of course crucifixion was a Roman institution; the Jews preferred stoning. Why would the film show the cross being built by Jews on Jewish (not Roman) property unless it was to infer that they were responsible?

Which raises the question: Is Mel Gibson anti-Semitic?

The above evidence to the contrary, I don’t think so. And neither do the many people he’s worked with in his long movie career, many of whom are Jewish, gay, liberal and/or non-religious.

One of the most striking things about Gibson’s recent history are the colleagues and co-workers who have come to his defense. Jody Foster — a gay woman — describes him as a beloved friend and expresses sorrow for the bad patch he’s going through. Jewish film company executives who have worked with him remain sympathetic despite his notorious Jew-baiting outburst to the California cop who arrested Gibson for drunken driving.

Perhaps there are two Mel Gibsons. One is a genuine artist and nice guy absolutely at home on movie sets filled with all sorts of people.

The other is Hutton Gibson’s son, a man who feels he must honor his father.

How much of the Gibson’s recent misbehavior is triggered by the fight going on inside him, a fight between his essential affable nature and his sense of duty to Dad, a duty that requires him to embrace (or appear to embrace) some looney, hate-filled notions?

Small wonder Gibson drinks. Small wonder that when he does, he spouts the nasty stuff drilled into him.

Robert Butler

Robert W. Butler joined the staff of the Kansas City Star in 1970 and from 1977 to 2011 was the paper's movie reviewer.

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