8. What Women Want (2000)
Gibson plays a lovable but utterly sexist man who can’t connect to or understand any of the women in his life, in spite of the fact that he has plenty of them to deal with: an ex-wife, a daughter, coworkers, lovers… Of all the men in the world for it to happen to, of course, he also develops the ability to hear every woman’s private thoughts after surviving a freak accident.
Gibson expertly plays the character’s comedic arcs with precision and range. He starts off thinking he’s going insane then devilishly figures out a way to take advantage of his situation. Nobody but Gibson can quite do a round-about like that: he runs around, frightened, bug-eyed like he’s Martin Riggs about to jump off a roof…
Then he relaxes into it, accepts it, and even starts to enjoy it with a troublemaker’s ease and enjoyment. Gibson is every bit as much a charismatic movie star as he is a skilled actor, and that combination is what makes him such a perfect fit for large studio films with a brain like What Women Want.
7. Signs (2002)
Gibson, when he made Signs, could pretty much do no wrong. He was an Oscar-winning director, the Lethal Weapon franchise was churning hit after hit after hit, and he was world-famous for being one of the most highly-energized and, well, (at the time in a good way) crazy movie stars in Hollywood.
Instead of giving audiences more of what they wanted, instead of playing off his looks (and ass) once again, Gibson made the kind of intelligent choice that allows for long careers in Hollywood: he chose to take on a new type of role for himself in director M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs by playing a single father preacher who is experiencing a crisis of faith due to the recent loss of his wife.
Gibson plays the role with a quiet defeat and pain we’d never quite seen in him before. We’d seen Gibson play crazed, anguished, and mortified… But we’d never seen him internalize it and play it in such a mature manner as he did in Signs.
While there is no denying it is a fantastic, entertaining, and fun movie, Gibson probably never quite got the notice his great work in Signs deserved because the film also happened to be a pretty hard-core science fiction story about aliens taking over the planet. Those types of films don’t usually get recognized for their acting, which makes it all the more impressive Gibson put so much of himself into the role.
6. Payback (1999 & 2006)
Payback had a troubled production in which writer-director Brian Helgeland was fired during shooting (when the movie was nearly complete), then replaced with producer Gibson’s hair dresser (no joke) to reshoot key scenes. In spite of this, the film is still one of the most entertaining, rotten, and joyously despicable modern film noirs in recent years.
Take your pick, because there’s two cuts: The cut the studio released in theatres where Gibson happily lives, and the director’s cut released on video seven years later where he (maybe) doesn’t. Aside from a few tonal changes to the two versions, along with the alteration of some pretty severe specifics (in one version the big bad is a woman, in the other, it’s played by Kris Kristofferson), the ultimate impact of both versions is overall the same.
One thing both versions of the movie have in common is that they both showcase the pure and contagious fun Gibson has in playing an amoral, violent gangster who pretty much has no lines he won’t cross (to a darkly comedic effect). Helgeland’s version is definitely the more original version that is more attuned to Gibson’s character, but the studio version doesn’t lose the fun, either. It just makes a really cool and fun film a little less unique and a little more predictable.
Lucy Liu stands out in the movie from Gibson and the rest of the solid supporting cast (Maria Bello, David Paymer, Gregg Henry, Deborah Unger) as a feisty gangster dominatrix. With a character like Liu’s being featured so prominently in both cuts of the film, it kind of makes you wonder why the producers and studio worried about changing anything in either cut in the first place because she steals the show so in both of them.
There was nothing they could cut from this film to make it lighter in tone, more commercial, less daring, or more typical Gibson fare. Payback, no matter how neutered the version you choose may be, is a great pulp tale (based on a Donald E. Westlake book) and Gibson makes it work by not shying away from its pitch-black nature as a performer. As a producer, however, it’s too bad he didn’t back himself up to make this twisted tale the best it could be.
5. Hamlet (1990)
Gibson tackles the role of Hamlet with a hunger and fierceness in Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most classic of all his classics. Simply put, he went all out, took a chance when he could have easily landed higher paying and safer roles, and wound up succeeding stupendously.
In Hamlet, Gibson the movie star proved he was also a great actor when he also stood toe-to-toe with established greats like Glenn Close, Ian Holm, and Paul Scofield (amongst others). He dropped his standard charm, brooded like a teenage bass player, and put everything he had into one of the most challenging, emotional, and layered character roles of all time.
Gibson brings a freshness, self-loathing, and a raw, thinly controlled layer of sanity to his portrayal of Hamlet. He is always committed, fascinating, and completely in control of his skills in this performance. It was a major turning point for the actor, showing he had the ability and the desire to be both a major movie star and a respected thespian.
4. Apocalypto (2006)
After offending just about everyone and making hundreds of millions of dollars with the sincere but (in the eyes of some) brutally misguided Passion of the Christ, Gibson gave up acting duties yet again to focus on writing and directing with Apocalypto. The result is not only a much better film than Passion of the Christ, it is is one of the most brutal, suspenseful, and engaging films ever made. “Edge of your seat” does not begin to describe the overwhelming intensity of Apocalypto, it almost comes from another world.
Taking a cue from his Mad Max mentor George Miller, Apocalypto is a historical chase film that relentlessly pulls its characters through one sadistic survival game to another.
The film was a turning point for Gibson’s struggling career at the time of its release. It revealed the passion, intelligence, and skill he had as a filmmaker, but it also revealed a dark side that didn’t sit well with mass audiences. Gibson’s “most beloved actor” status had fallen, and Apocalypto served as a fascinating showcase for the places Gibson’s career could go now that he was free of being everyone’s favorite actor.
3. The Beaver (2011)
The Beaver caught Gibson at more of a vulnerable point in his career than ever before. Many read into the performance as not being much of a performance, but more of director Jodie Foster catching her friend Mel Gibson in the middle of a nervous breakdown and filming it.
You could read a lot into Gibson’s public problems to think you understand the performance (many did), but the truth is that perception is a highly romanticized notion. The Beaver was a professional performance by a professional actor, and a damned good one at that.
No one wanted to admit the skill and talent required to pull it off because they all (for good reason or not) hated Mel Gibson as a human being at the time. It was probably a role he would have played just as well at the height of his success and likability, anyway. The Beaver and Gibson’s wonderful performance was lost on audiences and critics as a result .
Playing a severely depressed man who finds a filthy hand beaver puppet and believes it has a life and personality of its own (fusing with his), Gibson is brilliant in the role for a very simple reason that has been overlooked by it’s detractors: No matter how absurd, silly, or insane the premise gets, Gibson always fully commits to his character and, as a result, creates one of the most believable, painful, unique, and touching depictions of mental illness ever put on film.
Off screen antics hurt this beautifully brave film. Gibson’s work within it is one of a kind, and Foster handles the director’s reigns invisibly and with no ego. Had it been a decade earlier, a lot more people would have cared. For now… It looks like we’re going to have to wait for something of a career retrospective before Gibson gets the accolades he deserves for his daring work in such an original film.
2. Lethal Weapon (1987)
If there is any role that defines Gibson, and that truly can show us what he is capable of giving as an actor in the timespan of about two hours, it is that of Martin Riggs, the suicidal L. A. homicide detective (and lead character) in Lethal Weapon. Recently paired with a middle-aged family man (Danny Glover) as his new partner, Gibson’s Vietnam Vet (and recently widowed) character is given a new chance at enjoying life through the newfound (odd couple) friendship. He also gets to kick some serious ass along the way…
Martin Riggs (in the first Lethal Weapon) is Gibson at his most entertaining, relaxed, funny, charming, sad, enraged, violent, and utterly insane self. He’s not entirely human, but that’s okay because the Richard Donner-directed/Joel Silver-produced mayhem extravaganza of the time isn’t entirely a realistic movie, either.
Donner’s extreme talent for making extraordinary situations believable, however, is part of what makes Lethal Weapon the masterpiece of its genre that it is (next to Die Hard of course). A large part also belongs to Gibson and Glover, whose humanity, chemistry, and likability are enough to carry an entire film without a single death, bloodshot, or car chase.
Not that those things don’t’ make the movie incredibly fun… It’s just that Lethal Weapon deserves to be known more than as one of the best and most popular action films of the eighties. It’s also one of the best crafted, most entertaining, and well-written (by Shane Black ) American blockbusters of its time. A lot of people deserve credit for its success, but the core and center of the film is something only a fascinating and conflicted talent like Gibson could completely pull off.
The sequels are all fine and fun, with Joe Pesci, Renee Russo, and Chris Rock eventually adding to the mayhem, but it’s this first film that still stands the test of time. It is a raw and unhinged effort from Donner, Gibson, Glover, and company that deserves to be remembered as the classic it is.
1. Braveheart (1995)
Is Braveheart really its star and director Mel Gibson’s best film or his best performance? To many, without a doubt. To others, it’s just another Hollywoodized Mel Gibson effort that didn’t deserve all the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, amongst others) it won. However you feel, Braveheart is indisputably a great reminder of where Gibson was in his career when he made it and what he could accomplish when he was at his peak.
Proving both his brilliance as an actor and a filmmaker, Braveheart is a versatile, violent film that also has a passionate, inspiring message (communicated through iconic lines of dialogue that don’t ever need to be repeated again) that keeps its many fans going for years and years of repeat viewings.
It’s a film about fighting for who you are, claiming what you want, and protecting what it yours. It’s a noble film bursting with good intentions, but it’s also a brutal, angry film that could easily be viewed as a “Mad Max in kilts” clone with bouts of highly graphic (though brilliantly executed) violence and bloodshed.
Both in the tone of the film and in the depth of Gibson’s performance, Braveheart exposes the many layers of Gibson’s soul. We see his anger, hatred, and blind choices, but we also see his enormous heart and his passionate belief in humanity and individuality.
Gibson is the only filmmaker who could have brought us Bravheart as we know it: an exciting, beautiful, tragic, and insanely accomplished film with an imperfect, bold, and bloody heart that beats with sincerity and passion. Braveheart is the epitome of what Gibson’s work and career once was…
What Mel Gibson’s work could or will be in the future remains to be seen. It could quite possibly (and hopefully) turn into something even more fascinating and informed, given his life experiences and brushes with darkness in the last decade. It’s a question of whether or not people will ever be able to look past their negative personal opinions of him to appreciate his filmmaking gifts again.
It’s also a question of whether or not Gibson will have the stomach or bravery to approach his work like he has in the past, given all he’s been through in more recent years. Time will tell with some patience, but for those who still consider themselves forgiving fans and admirers of him, there is still a chance that they’ll get to see and appreciate something great from Gibson again, one day…
Author Bio: Matt Hendricks is an independent filmmaker with several projects currently in development.