Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade and, appropriately, feels exactly like a film made by someone who hasn’t released a movie in as many years. While the film has enough strong points to recommend, it often tries too hard to push its message of ideological purity across to audiences, with a seeming over eagerness holding it back from being the masterpiece Gibson is capable of. Then again, given the events of his own recent past, it’s almost a miracle itself the film exists at all.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of World War II combat medic Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who refuses to carry a weapon in combat. As you might imagine, his fellow soldiers aren’t too happy with Desmond’s moral beliefs. Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) tells his troops not to count on Doss to aid them on the battlefield, bullying the young medic and subjecting him to ridicule and beatings. But when Doss’s squad suffer heavy causalities at Okinawa, guess who turns up to save everybody? It’s not hard to guess with such a predictable narrative thread and simplistic dialogue.
Now, I’m not trying to downplay the legit heroism of the real-life Doss. What he did is as brave as anyone can claim to doing. But the film painfully really oversells the conflict between Doss and military, especially during the first act. The back and forth between Doss and military personal gets very tedious. The problem is the military higher ups are outraged only because Doss’s refusals contradict conventional military procedure, not on a personal level. Little insight is given to the large cast of supporting characters, many who come off as mere war movie stereotypes written only to drive the plot forward. Their lines are plain and reminisce of a ‘40s Republic war picture.
It would have been more interesting if more time was granted to fleshing out the supporting characters’ backstories, detailing their own ideologies and fears. Perhaps then audiences could better empathize and understand Doss’s detractors, making the main ideological conflict more engaging.
Of course, this isn’t to say the film is a total failure; as we expected from the director of Braveheart, battle scenes are truly spectacular. Gibson is a master of violent imagery and his recreations in Hacksaw Ridge are as horrifyingly graphic as I’ve ever seen in a picture. Thankfully, they are equally as effective as Gibson uses his camera like a painter, making the bloody combat confusing among all the smoke, flame, and gunfire, cutting quickly but making sure each shot has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Often he will use slow motion effectively to ensure we can processes what’s onscreen. While strategy and tactics exist in battle, it’s pure luck who lives and dies. Kudos to editor John Gilbert for a job well done.
Another major component is Andrew Garfield. His impressive performance acts as the glue holding this mixed bag of a movie together. Garfield finds this right balance between intelligence, thoughtfulness, and effectiveness of Doss’s personality while maintaining a very likable screen presence, which is key for a protagonist heavily criticized by the rest of the characters. Garfield never plays Doss as some sort of huckster intellectual, but that doesn’t mean Doss isn’t a thoughtful person. Doss heavily considers his morals and methods serving for his country, revisiting the chastisement his abusive father (played by Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic WWI veteran, gave his son about being too contemplative for the Army.
Garfield also has some sweet romantic scenes with Dororthy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), the two showing real chemistry and further demonstrating Palmer as an upcoming talent with the potential of stardom. I just wish the film would have better resolved their story together.
Overall, I have to recommend Hacksaw Ridge based on its battle scenes and the performances of Garfield and Palmer. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t add something about Mel Gibson. I think Gibson sees himself as Doss’s father, a troubled man who believes his prior faults shouldn’t overshadow his entire life’s accomplishments. A plea the father makes in a military court makes this obvious. I also believe Gibson is striving to be somebody like Doss, a man incapable of betraying his morals. While I have my reservations about Hacksaw Ridge, I think Gibson is an admirably honest artist and I look forward to his future films.