War is hell. That is perhaps never truer in film than if Mel Gibson is the director. Mel, from when he was a massive movie star and through the turbulent past decade, has always been an actor and director who was drawn to violence and blood, for better and for worse. It makes for some memorable characters and some memorable films, but it also feeds into what his critics have to say against him. Wherever people fall on the topic of Mel Gibson’s personal life, Hollywood ultimately loves a comeback story, and so a decade after his last directorial effort, Apocalypto, and six years after his last significant film role, Edge of Darkness, Mel Gibson returns to the Hollywood spotlight as director of Hacksaw Ridge, the story of the first and only conscientious objector in WWII to win the Medal of Honor.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a simple country boy who is an active member of his community and loves the countryside. His father (Hugo Weaving) carries the heavy burden of having served in World War I and surviving while so many of his friends did not, making him a guilt-ridden drunk who hates himself, according to Desmond’s mother (Rachel Griffiths). Desmond falls in love with a nurse at the local hospital, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), but despite his refusal to pick up a weapon to take another’s life, Desmond still feels compelled to enter into the army as a medic, hoping to do some good in a sea of bad. This mindset, which stems from his beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist, comes into direct conflict with his superiors in the 77th Infanty, in particular Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), who in turn create animosity between Doss and his fellow soldiers in the hopes of washing him out of boot camp. Doss persists through the abuse of his fellow soldiers and facing court martial, and enters into the Pacific theater of war, as the 77th attempts to assist in taking Okinawa, starting with Hacksaw Ridge, a stronghold on a cliff that has repelled several waves of US incursions. Thrust into hell on earth, Doss searches for his purpose for being there.
I haven’t read a lot of reviews for this film, though many of them on Rotten Tomatoes have been positive. I imagine some of them spend some time analyzing what the film says about Gibson as a person, given it is a nearly unavoidable aspect. Having seen the film, I ultimately think that it will reinforce whatever people’s perceived conceptions already were in regards to Gibson and whether he has a “bloodlust” issue when it comes to his films. Hacksaw Ridge is easily his most violent and bloody film, surpassing the violence of The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto.
The film feels like a genuine hellscape. Soldiers are riddled with bullets. Explosions throw people through the air with regularity. People have limbs blown off left and right, and often both (sorry, bad pun). The number of soldiers set on fire by a flamethrower are too many to count. It is bloody, gritty, and visceral in a way that few films are. In a lot of ways, it is a nightmare. Sitting through the violence was one of the few times I’ve been genuinely unsettled and slightly uncomfortable with what I was witnessing on screen, and I have seen my share of messed up stuff in movies. And one could easily see it and conclude that Gibson is someone with a sick fascination with bloodshed and is someone who revels in the violence. It is certainly the most compelling case anyone will ever have in that regard, and I certainly found myself wondering that.
What stops me from going all the way with that train of thought, though, is that Gibson does not just show the violent bloodshed of this hellscape that men are inflicting on one another, he shows the trauma it inflicts on the men who are in it. As the 77th head toward the front line, the pass by returning soldiers who are barely keeping it together. They pass by trucks that are wheeling out dead soldiers stacked three high in the back.
The toughest and most frequent charge against war films is that any depiction of war is a glorification of war, or that every war movie is inherently pro-war. Some people, like Steven Spielberg, have said that every war movie is actually anti-war. One movie, let alone one from Mel Gibson, is not going to settle that debate. However, I do believe that what Gibson is going for here is to play up (if one even can play up) the horror of war and the vicious brutality of it. I believe the goal is to juxtapose it with the virtue of Doss as a conscientious objector and in his refusal to pick up arms even as the world is tearing itself apart around him and everything about the circumstance is dehumanizing.
To this end, I believe Gibson is partly to mostly successful, though not completely. Doss has his personal and religious reasons for refusing to pick up a weapon. Both of these are relayed through flashbacks to his childhood when he nearly killed his older brother by accident and as a young adult in an incident involving his father threatening his mother with a gun. Both of those instances are supposed to shape Doss profoundly, but for whatever reason, it is not completely conveyed. With the incident involving his brother as a kid, he immediately goes over to a picture in nearby room of illustrations depicting all of the Ten Commandments. A heart to heart between he and his mother about murder being the worst sin to God is supposed to tell us the seed was planted early in Desmond that he could not do this, but it isn’t quite compelling enough. Perhaps because the religious or theological reasoning behind it is a little thinner in explanation than the personal experiences behind his decision. It’s not that lip service is paid to the religious aspect of the film, but it’s definitely not as strong as it could have been, and in a film like this, it calls for it.
Even if the execution is not as good as it could be, the film is still emotionally powerful. Doss is an important figure and his is an incredible story, which is actually condensed and (amazingly enough) slightly downplayed here compared to the actual citation he received with the Medal of Honor. The bravery and courage and commitment that Doss displays to the same men who mocked him and beat him in training, thinking he was putting their lives at risk by refusing the carry a weapon, is moving. It is a depiction of genuine, real-life heroics. The theater got more than a little dusty on more than one occasion for me.
There are a few flaws with the film, aside from the questionable religious tone and squaring the violence level in the story with the overall subject matter. There is a problem inherent in making a war movie with elaborate battle scenes when the main character is notably absent for large chunks of the action. They could have cut down a few minutes of the battles to make it less pronounced that Desmond was nowhere to be seen during several minutes of the film. Also, the final 15 minutes of the film felt a little anticlimactic in terms of the overall story, as a 2nd assault on the ridge is mounted, when the important emotional weight of the film was resolved.
All told, though, Hacksaw Ridge is a film worth seeing if you can stomach the significant amount of violence involved. The story of Desmond Doss is one worth being told. It’s also one of Andrew Garfield’s better performances and features a well-rounded supporting cast. As far as comebacks go, Mel Gibson has done alright by himself on this film. I hope he has sorted his life out and it is not another decade before his next directorial effort.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars