REVIEW: Hacksaw Ridge (2017)

Director: Mel Gibson

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer

Running time: 139 minutes

3-stars

Unflinching, relentless and violent; Hacksaw Ridge is an intense portrayal of unfaltering belief amidst unimaginable horror; but all the while feeling unassured in the angle it wishes to take.

Based on a true story, the film follows the remarkable heroics of Desmond Doss (Garfield) – an American WWII conscientious objector who enlists as a front-line medic, but his firm anti-violent tendencies and deep religious beliefs mean that he refuses to bear arms on the battlefield.

Given Gibson’s public reputation and depiction in the media over the last ten years, it seems somewhat fitting his return should be marked by a film about redemption. After all, both stories, when stripped back, are very similar. Doss – belittled, ridiculed and bullied because of the outspoken beliefs he holds – eventually earns the respect and admiration of those around him after his miraculous actions saved the lives of over 75 men (ok, so Gibson hasn’t saved 75 lives just yet). While it remains to be seen if Hacksaw Ridge will be the thing to earn Gibson his pardon in the eyes of those against him, it is certainly a film that credits his brilliant visual grasp of the horrors of combat, even if the film feels less strong in other areas.  

As one fluent in the language of War films might expect, the first half of Hacksaw Ridge eases us through Desmond’s childhood and adolescent days as a small-town boy whose views on violence are shaped by his turbulent relationship with his father (played with diligent anguish by Hugo Weaving) – whose own life has been carved by his wartime experiences that took the lives of his childhood friends. Running parallel is Desmond’s budding romance with nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), before the inevitable occurs and Doss feels obligated to enlist into the army. There he meets the various stereotypes that have become fulcrum in the genre – the fire-mouthed Sergeant (Vince Vaughn giving his best R. Lee Ermey impression), unsympathetic Captain (Worthington) and macho meat-head (Luke Bracey) who masks a past of insecurity. In spending slightly too long establishing Doss’ personal manifesto as a “conscientious collaborator” – as he himself puts it – Gibson perhaps overcompensates trying to hammer home Doss’ predicament, to enhance his eventual heroics which, in truth, don’t need any augmenting. Despite conventional openings, Hacksaw Ridge does, however, invite intrigue through its central focus on one of the usual part-players in the genre: the medic.

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It’s during the film’s second half that Gibson’s prowess really shows, however. When we eventually arrive at the scene of Doss’ finest hour – the Maeda Escarpment in Okinawa (its nickname gives the film its title) – we move firmly away from a Pearl Harbour type of set-up, to one much more of the Saving Private Ryan mould. The irony for Doss here is that, while being atop a ridge that places him closer to the heavens, he is, in reality, much closer to hell.

Certainly not for the squeamish, Gibson’s camera plunges us right into the mouth of the beast; into an unwavering, seemingly never-ending tsunami of explosions, bullet-ridden corpses, and scattered limbs. If this was a gore-off between Spielberg and Gibson, it is certainly the latter that comes up trumps here. For the best part of an hour, there is very little mercy in Gibson’s direction – amidst the fire, rubble and blood, we are put through a visual, aural, and immersive lesson in violence. Despite such scenes being the film’s biggest success, there is certainly a sense, however, that these moments are messy in more ways than one. The film’s overall, anti-war message appears somewhat undermined by the extensive violence on show. Contradicting the pacifist angle it brings through its protagonist, it feels as though the film spends as much time tracking the movements and actions of the more ‘weapon-tolerant’ members of the unit as we do the film’s hero. As a result, the violence in Hacksaw Ridge begins to take the form of something that ultimately unifies the men and even runs the risk of glorifying the very thing it condemns. This might well be a conscious decision from Gibson, as a means of (at least at first) showing the ineptitude of Doss’ beliefs when faced with the overwhelmingly brutal machine that is war. However, the film never really shakes the feeling that Gibson has plucked for a more formulaic, slow-motion heavy, conventional account of events.

Off the back of his portrayal as a man struggling with a crisis of faith in Scorsese’s Silence, Andrew Garfield’s character is far more assured of his beliefs here. With shades of Forrest Gump and The Thin Red Line‘s Private Witt, Desmond Doss, despite being perhaps a touch naïve, is charming, principled and, above all else, an instantly likeable addition to the list of war heroes to be given the big screen treatment.

While Garfield is the ideal choice to portray a man small in stature and physique, but big on cohonies; this is a film as much about the man behind the camera as it is about the man in front of it. Hacksaw Ridge, regardless of what you think, signals the return of Mel Gibson.  

 

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