Starring: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving
Director: Mel Gibson
Running Time: 139 mins
Synopsis: Based on the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Garfield) who enlisted in the U.S Army but refused to carry a weapon due to his religious beliefs. Training as a medic he finds himself in the hellfire that is Okinawa and has his faith tested.
You can say what you will about Mel Gibson, and believe me a lot has been said, but it cannot be denied that he is one ballsy filmmaker. Constructing a gory no holds barred epic featuring large scale battle scenes starring himself in only his second film (Braveheart), telling the tale of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion in full R-rated violence and in Aramaic no less, and building on that native nature with a full on chase movie spoken in ancient Mayan (Apocalypto). Even in his acting choices, who else would’ve picked their return to screen to be a low-budget film wherein his central character talks to a hand puppet. Suffice to see Mel Gibson does not play it safe, and with Hacksaw Ridge he has chosen another suitably brave subject to make a film out of. An intensely graphic WW2 picture where the central lead does not once fire a weapon, coupled with a potentially twee first act involving a soapy love story. The fact he makes it work and then some is also testament to the immense talent he is behind the camera.
After a brief snippet of the horrors to come we drop in on a young Desmond Doss as he frolics with his older brother in the sun-drenched Virginian countryside. Faced with the constant threat of an unpredictably violent father (an authentically wounded Hugo Weaving) dealing with the trauma of fighting in WW1, Desmond lashes out at his brother in a moment of shocking violence. This event is key to Desmond’s faith and his unwillingness to harm others. Lurching forward 15 years we catch up with him as a softly spoken seemingly naive Andrew Garfield. Nursing the idea of becoming a medic he falls upon the wholesome and beautiful Dorothy (Teresa Palmer, charming). Their early meet-cutes are hugely endearing, with Garfield’s puppy dog yee-shucks nature a particular high point.
All these soapy love declarations and golden-bathed dates could have been unbearably saccharine but Gibson keeps it on just the right side, helped immeasurably by the playful performances at the core but also a veneer of darkness running underneath. Throughout these moments there are a number of astute flashes of complexity, from the foreboding glimpses of the growing unrest in Europe during a first awkward date, or Weaving’s vulnerable rage at his eldest son’s choice to enlist. The effects of global war are palpably felt. Feeling the call to action Desmond decides to join and is resolute that he will stick to his beliefs, despite the repeated cries of his father that in war all your moral certainties mean nothing. The script does lay all this on a little thick but the committed performances elevate it enough to overcome such shortcomings.
Giving way to a more traditional Full Metal Jacket style Army training section Gibson is effective in introducing all the members of Desmond’s platoon with the simplest of efficiency. Stock characters they may be, the aggressive jock type, the muscly confident type (whom we all know will run scared as soon as the real fighting starts) and the funny looking heartfelt one, but each is played with enough charisma and humour to make their inevitable deaths have real emotion. The usual training montages feature but upon learning of Desmond’s inability to fight, this once welcoming of groups turns on Doss, beating and bullying him. Leading the charge on this is Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell, who convinces as the R.Lee Ermey-esque abuser in chief. He laces his torments with a witty retort and as Doss’s resolute conviction holds firm he begins to find a new found appreciation for his strength. Their later interplay is affectionately harsh. Sam Worthington is also surprisingly memorable as a senior Captain, who becomes the biggest opponent to Doss’s perceived cowardice.
Fighting in Military court for the right to fight without holding a weapon it is clear that Andrew Garfield is the films trump card. As a man so steadfast in his faith he is a captivating lead, showcasing a vulnerability that occasionally seeps out into fierce rage. He is immensely rootable and in the film’s final blood stained act Garfield anchors the chaos with the stamina he displays. Gibson is somewhat guilty of deifying Doss to an extent, with a few Christlike images feeling a little on the nose but Garfield grounds it with an innate believability. It should also be noted that after this and Silence he has now become the go to guy for faith-based men who suffer through immeasurable challenges, physically and mentally.
All this classically shot old fashioned melodrama gives way to a final act of such immediacy and ferocity that it will leave you breathless. From the moment the platoon climb the shakily placed netting up to the titular Ridge, to the final cathartic surrender the tension is unbearable. Gibson has concocted a painting of messy warfare, all confusion and sound and fury. Limbs are flayed, blood spurts from every orifice and we are left with the sense that, yes, war is indeed hell. Even in the brief moments of downtime between battles, the sense that at any moment an enemy is around the corner is horrifically unnerving. In a way we have seen war like this before, Saving Private Ryan also utilises effective sound design, brutal violence and sheer scale to overwhelm the viewer, but Gibson maximises the impact by preceding these events with the wholesome simplicity of the first two acts. It is a nightmare of chaos directed with spectacular clarity and geography.
Arguably the Japanese are very poorly represented, merely the enemy here, with all the derogatory terms and stereotypes you would expect. Gibson also makes an odd choice towards the end of randomly showing them performing the sacrificial Hari-Kari technique juxtaposed with Desmond’s final moments, it feels superfluous to the otherwise powerful ending. As the real players in the tale contribute their memories over the end credits it is impossible to not be moved by the simple heroism of not only Desmond but all the brave young men who gave their lives to protect our freedoms. In this time of hatred and fear, a story of one man attempting to champion peace against such overwhelming odds might just be Mel Gibson’s ballsiest move yet.
Verdict: At times heavy handed and clunky but undeniably powerful thanks to Garfield’s heartfelt performance and some of the most visceral battle scenes ever put to screen. Mel Gibson again proves just what a directing talent he is!