UK Release Date: 27th January 2017
Runtime: 139 minutes
Director: Mel Gibson
Writer: Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Luke Bracey, Sam Worthington, Rachel Griffiths
Synopsis: A devoted Christian, determined to serve for his country in the Second World War, refuses to handle a weapon and instead vows to heal as many of his fallen comrades on the battlefield as possible.
Mel Gibson is back and he appears to have pretty much won the Hollywood firmament over with Hacksaw Ridge. Critics and audiences alike have been able to separate the art from the artist in the case of Gibson’s visceral, muscular Second World War action movie. This, however, is no idle gorefest – it has a humanist streak at its heart that is unusual for a movie of this genre. War films are riddled with cliché and obvious tropes, for the most part, but Hacksaw Ridge sidesteps much of this with a compelling and genuinely shocking journey through hell and back.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) grows up in Virginia with his father Tom (Hugo Weaving) rocked by the scars of his service in the First World War. After he helps save the life of a man outside the church, Doss falls in love with nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and, when war breaks out, he decides to enlist with the hope of becoming a combat medic. During basic training, Doss attracts the ire of Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) as a result of his refusal to wield a rifle and finds himself court-martialled. He eventually makes it to Japan, where he serves in the bloody onslaught on the eponymous landmark.
The film’s construction is brave from the start, clearly dividing the film into pre-war and mid-conflict. This immediately brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which is rightly considered a true classic of the war movie genre. Fortunately for Hacksaw Ridge, both halves of the narrative work well. The first is a glossy prestige drama in which we spend plenty of time with Garfield’s sensitive, charming central character and Hugo Weaving, who is brilliant as his perma-sozzled father, morally and personally wrecked by his experiences of war. This segues into the training scenes, in which Vince Vaughn is commendably adequate and Garfield butts heads with a nicely written array of comrades.
The film truly comes alive though when Hacksaw Ridge arrives at its titular location and the bullets begin to fly. Gibson has never been a filmmaker who scrimps on violence and there’s no doubt that these scenes are a uniquely visceral experience. Bullets scorch across flesh, limbs are torn from bodies and explosives send razor sharp debris careering across the field of battle. Gibson refuses to maintain his distance and therefore chucks his audience head first into the dirt, blood and carnage. Crucially, the gaze is always Garfield’s and he’s someone who recognises the inherent ugliness of conflict. He is also, however, a character who recognises that the war is necessary – and that’s a new, compelling perspective on war.
Garfield is the lynchpin of everything in Hacksaw Ridge. In Garfield’s other recent work Silence, Christianity is essentially the main character, whereas the focus here is on Garfield. Desmond Doss was an ordinary man with an extraordinary moral compass and Garfield conveys that very well, as a genuine American hero. The scenes in which he desperately throws himself into danger in order to save as many of his comrades as possible. We gradually see those comrades come round to Doss’ way of thinking and understand why he does what he does.
For its entire third act, Hacksaw Ridge is almost flawless and, had it ended 10 minutes earlier, it would have been probably the year’s best film. However, the final scene of the movie sends the entire Jenga tower falling down in a hazy cacophony of rah-rah muzzle porn. It’s a glossy, slow-motion sequence of chest-beating and brutality that could only be made more sickly jingoistic if there were literally a giant American flag overlaid on the background throughout. Gibson wants the audience to punch the air at American triumph, but it really just ends an otherwise terrific film on a bum note.
Pop or Poop?
Mel Gibson, despite his often horrendous personal qualities, is a great action filmmaker and Hacksaw Ridge is a complete example of that. It has an iffy finale that spills over into overly patriotic nonsense, but Andrew Garfield’s central performance is impressively identifiable and the battle sequences are a boisterous and troubling melange of dirt, blood and viscera.
Whatever you think of its director, this is a remarkable piece of cinema that emphasises the horror of war by taking its audience to hell and back.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.