You can take your choice between two seriously messed-up, hell-raising dads this weekend. After eight years off the screen, Hollywood’s most notorious anti-Semite, Mel Gibson, is back in Edge of Darkness, and he comes out swinging. In this violent conspiracy thriller, he plays a Boston homicide detective whose 24-year-old daughter is gunned down by his side, a righteous motive for psychotic vengeance if ever there was one. And Mad Mel seems bent on proving that he’s still the meanest, if not the most mature, movie star on the block. Then there’s Grown Up Movie Star, a plucky tale of family chaos from Newfoundland, which recently had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It stars Newfoundland native Shawn Doyle (Big Love) as an ex-NHL hockey player struggling to contain his sexually precocious 14-year-old daughter and his own closeted gay sexuality, and it features a powerhouse performance from Tatiana Maslany as the young girl. No contest here. Edge of Darkness, directed by Casino Royale‘s Martin Campbell, is one slick and nasty piece of Hollywood engineering, and there’s a certain fascination in watching Gibson erase every last iota of charm as he pushes his iconic persona over the edge, into the red zone of unadulterated hatred. But it’s a brutally cynical genre movie that eventually undermines the dead-eyed gravity of its star by veering into camp. Grown Up Movie Star, which skirts the edge of white-trash melodrama, risks running off the rails as well. But driven by strong performances and a sharp script, this bold feature debut by Newfoundland writer-director Adriana Maggs has a winning ring of authenticity. And, more to the point, it has characters you might actually want to spend time with.
Edge of Darkness is adapted from an award-winning six-BBC mini-series that aired 20 years ago. And you can see that in the awkward complexity of the plot, which has been shrunk to two hours, updated to a contemporary setting and re-tooled as a vehicle for Mel Gibson. This is familiar turf for Martin Campbell, who directed the original mini-series, and there’s also a whiff of Casino Royale in the way Gibson is fashioned as a blunt instrument on a barbaric mission. And the conspiracy plot has a bit of a Bond gleam to it: Evil resides in a SPECTRE-like nuclear research corporation that is above the law and headed by a satanic CEO (Danny Huston) who talks as if he’s stroking an imaginary Persian cat.
But really the movie is all about Mel. And while he brings a manic conviction to his performance, Mel (unlike Daniel Craig) is the kind of actor who can never submerge himself into a character. He’s one of those movie-star guys, like Tom Cruise, whose personal brand trumps whatever character he’s playing. Here he adopts a clipped Boston accent, but that makes him no less Mel-like. The problem, of course, when you play a star persona rather than a character is that you drag the rest of your celebrity baggage along with you—in this case, the anti-Semitic drunk who had that DUI altercation with the cop he called “sugar tits” in 2004.
So as I watched Edge of Darkness, I couldn’t stop seeing it as a perverse form of Hollywood rehab. What better way to cauterize that incident in the public mind than have Mel play a noble cop who suffers the worst loss imaginable, seeing his only child blown into a bloody heap. Mel’s first big scene in this comeback movie is an outpouring of massive grief. Ah, now he is the victim. Then he is transformed by that grief—the way a superhero’s powers are forged from some deforming nuclear accident—until he becomes the avenger from hell: “I’m the guy with nothing to lose who doesn’t give a shit,” he says. It’s one of those lines that seems to say as much about the actor that the guy he’s playing. There are other one-liners that seem planted, and tailor-made for Mel, such as, “You better decide whether you’re hangin’ on the cross or bangin’ in the nails.”
The script, co-written by William Monahan (The Departed), is in love with its own literacy, quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald and endowing an erudite super-thug (Ray Winstone) with polished bon mots. But when the dust settles, we’re left with a depressing portrait of a mean-spirited movie star who seems desperate to prove that he’s the nastiest man in show business.
Grown Up Movie Star was rejected by the Toronto International Film Festival, which seems unfathomable to me. I guess it lurches perilously close to the kitchen sink to fit received notions of what Canadian cinema should be, and lacks the formal veneer of arty detachment. But with this (NOT) Goin’ Down the Road vision of small-town oblivion, director Adriana Maggs captures the ragged desolation and dark humour of Newfoundland’s down-and-out extremes with an evocative drama that bubbles along a tide of dark comedy. On paper, the elements look like a recipe for trouble. Ray (Shawn Doyle) is a washed-up, pot-smoking vandal of a gay hockey player who falls out of the closet as he struggles to raise two teenage daughters. He’s doing it alone, separated from their mother, a pathetic crack-addict actress trying to make it in Los Angeles. The eldest daughter, Ruby (Tatiana Maslany), dreams of becoming a movie star, and though she’s just 14, she’s in such a rush to lose her virginity that she’s getting a reputation at school as a slut. She’s also mercilessly teasing her “Uncle” Stuart, Ray’s best friend, who’s in a wheelchair after being shot by Ray in a hunting accident. Ray is a photographer and Ruby is more perilously ready her close-up.
With so much reckless, underage sexuality ricocheting through the story, there are more than a few wince-making moments. The stew of small-town dysfunction includes everything but inbreeding. But a cast of strong actors defy remarkable odds and keep their characters from sliding into stereotype. The dialogue is credible and it crackles along with an underhanded oh-so-Newfoundland wit. But the reason to see this movie is Tatiana Maslany. She’s 24, and doesn’t just do a plausible job of shaving 10 years off her age. With a knockout performance, she brings home the ultimate irony: the star of Grown Up Movie Star may fulfill the destiny in the title that her character can only dream of.