The past 10 years for Mel Gibson have been undeniably rough. Ever since his infamous DUI arrest all those years ago, his behavior toward others progressively got worse. Then this behavior was leaked to the media for all to see and hear. It got to the point that it wrecked his Oscar-winning career and sent him into Hollywood obscurity. That is not to say he’s been missing completely. Gibson directed the haunting Apocalypto to moderate success, as well as acted in the few projects he can get his hands on (let’s not talk about Expendables 3).
Now in 2016, he is back in the spotlight with his new directorial effort Hacksaw Ridge, which earned itself a 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. Just like that, we may have Mel Gibson back at the Oscars for the first time since 2006.
This is especially interesting timing, as The Birth of a Nation, once an early Oscar favorite, came under fire in the last couple of months when allegations against its director and star Nate Parker came back from his past to haunt him. It begs the question of whether an art piece can be separated and evaluated on its own away from the artist. It is a fascinating topic and it is equally fascinating to see how mainstream audiences approach movies with this kind of “stained” reputation. Most likely realizing this conundrum, Gibson decided to return to some of his Mad Max/Lethal Weapon acting roots before his much buzzed war drama drops later this year. Those roots brought him to director Jean-François Richet’s Blood Father.
Written and adapted by Peter Craig from his own novel of the same name, Blood Father introduces us to John, played by Mel Gibson. John attends AA meetings and has been sober for two years. One of those years was in prison. Now on parole, he runs a tattoo parlor out of his trailer home while under the watch of his sponsor Kirby, played by William H. Macy. Out of the blue, John receives a phone call from his 17-year-old daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty), who not only has been estranged from her father for many years, but she has also been legally declared “missing” for some time. Lydia has found herself in a bunch of violent trouble and she needs her hard edged father to help her. Without hesitation, John goes on the run with Lydia as a federal manhunt chases after them, as well as some members of the Mexican Cartel who have unfinished business with Lydia.
It is a familiar premise to be sure, but one that works better than it should due to Mel Gibson’s terrific performance and the depth given to the broken relationship between John and Lydia. These characters are given understandable, if not sympathetic, flaws that mirror each other. Seeing the relationship grow between the two presented the film with a sensitive profundity that caught me completely off guard. As the film speeds into its end game climax, Gibson has moments of pent-up passion and anger that are legitimately powerful. In fact, this may be the best performance Mel Gibson has given in since his sympathetic turn in 2011’s Jodie Foster directed The Beaver. Gibson seems to be able to dig into his own personal belligerence to astounding affect, while providing his costar Erin Moriarty rich material to bounce off of. Never thought this would be the case, but Mel Gibson has given one of the best performances of 2016.
That’s not to say the movie is all drama and character work. At its heart, Blood Father takes inspiration from exploitation thrillers and grindhouse cinema. With its low-cost aesthetic and grimy violence, there’s an edge here that’s invigorating. With a short and economic runtime that clocks in under an hour and a half, Blood Father hits the ground running and keeps a brisk pace. The film takes a detour in the second act that seemingly has little consequence for the overall plot and it throws off that pace for a short section, but if also allows Jean-François Richet to let the audience soak in the bleak oranges and browns of back country New Mexico to stylish effect.
Unfortunately for Blood Father, the recently released Hell or High Water has the same setting and a similar atmosphere and ultimately is the better crafted film. Nevertheless, the former film stands on its own despite this and offers intense thrills that practically buzz with veracity.
Is Blood Father in any way a masterpiece? Absolutely not. However, it is an above average thriller with more substance than was expected of it. Will it be enough to bring audiences back to Mel Gibson? That’s a tough question, as its limited-theatrical release was brisk and was quickly dropped onto Blu-ray/DVD. This is a shame. Perhaps the upcoming Hacksaw Ridge will cast enough of a positive light on its troubled director to bring back some of the audience faith he lost so long ago. In many ways, the character of John can be seen as a flip image of Gibson himself; John isn’t a good man, but one who begins the path of redemption and sticks to it when it matters the most. Let’s hope that Mel does the same.