Hacksaw Ridge marks the end of a decade-long absence from director Mel Gibson and I couldn’t be more thankful that we’ve finally got him back. Despite its tonal instability, Gibson has produced yet another gritty, ruthless and impactful movie that displays the best representation of war since ‘Saving Private Ryan’. With Andrew Garfield giving the performance of his career, Hacksaw Ridge offers a deeply personal look at war and the spirit that can found within us all, without glorifying either of them.
Hacksaw Ridge is a movie of two halves as we follow the life of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector, as he enters the American army as a combat medic who refuses to handle a weapon. We see the trials and tribulation associated with his beliefs before eventually reaching the pacific. Doss goes on to save many lives, overcoming the prejudice from his fellow soldiers, returning home a hero and receiving the medal of honour.
Although the film revolves around a born and bred American hero, it never overtly feels patriotic. Instead, Gibson has managed to produce a movie that focuses on the human capacity to believe and continue to peruse an objective. Despite the fact that Doss firmly believes the power within him comes from God, the movie also never feels like it’s preaching the ways of the church.
The first half of the movie sets up the life and character of Doss. The dialogue throughout this section borders on pure cheese, however, Garfield carries the role with such charm that the first half seems almost intentional to ensure that the immense contrast between war and home can be seen. Despite this, I still can’t get away from how conventional the first half is. This is especially distracting compared to how manic the war scenes are. It’s just so formulaic that I feel that I’ve seen it a million times before. The home life, the romance, the training fields have all been done before and Hacksaw Ridge makes no attempt to remove itself from this formula. Sure it works, but we saw it in Braveheart and I expected a little more from Gibson especially after how unorthodox Apocalypto was.
However, with any Gibson movie, we never come her for the romance. War is horror and Gibson holds nothing back showing it at its absolute worst. Gorgeous cinematography and manically choreographed battles honestly depict the brutal and hellish landscape of the pacific theatre. You savour the quiet moments between attacks, giving you moments to reflect and gasp for air. For me, what makes Hacksaw Ridge so poignant and brutal is the fact that Doss’s platoon isn’t the first to attempt to overthrow the Japanese on the battlefield. We see mangled bodies and rotting flesh eaten by rats before the bullets start flying, setting the eerie tone that follows throughout the fighting. On the same thought, the binary contrast between the soldiers that are fresh and those have already fought is deeply unsettling. Not even American bravery and self-confidence can overpower the horrors of war.
Throughout the powerful imagery and graphic violence, Gibson feels the need to add moments that can be perceived in no other way as comic. For instance, and I will say no more than this, Vince Vaughn’s character rides a homemade sleigh backwards firing a machine gun. It breaks the tone and immersion in a way that hinders the next few minutes as you question why he thought that was a good idea.
The movie ends abruptly after the fighting ends, which I found particularly frustrating as Gibson set up many relationships in the first half of the movie that we never see the conclusion to. Instead, we are treated to title screens and testimonials from soldiers in the platoon as well as Doss himself. This provides adequate closure, yet, with such magnificent performances from the likes of Hugo Weaving, I felt disappointed we never get to see them reunited.
Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form, somewhat, for Gibson and despite its tonal instability, I still believe that it’s a must watch. The battles scenes alone are the most unflattering, dirty and downright mean scenes I’ve seen in over a decade and that’s probably because Gibson wasn’t here to give me them.