7.5 out of 10
Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss
Directed by Mel Gibson
Hacksaw Ridge Review:
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first – Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s first directed film since Apocalypto, and if you’re familiar with the films he’s directed so far, Hacksaw Ridge is entirely within that wheelhouse. It’s a film of passion (pun intended) and faith, and I’m certain that it lines up with many of Gibson’s philosophies and beliefs, but most importantly, it shows Gibson as a director with vision and a point of view. Does Hacksaw Ridge excuse Gibson’s offscreen behavior in the years since Apocalypto? That’s not for me to decide; only the film’s audience can determine that. But Hacksaw Ridge feels earnest, direct, and a testament to Gibson’s own dogma. Hacksaw Ridge means what it says, regardless of how you feel about Mel Gibson as a human being.
It also showcases Gibson’s unerring ability to shoot action and violence. And make no mistake, Hacksaw Ridge is a very violent movie, and at times seems directly at odds with the philosophies of its main character, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who joins the Army as a conscientious objector during World War II. Doss is a man who refuses to even touch a rifle; he figures that he can do more good as a medic helping fallen soldiers in battle than he could as any kind of warrior. And frankly, wars aren’t won by who gets saved; as George Patton puts it, it’s about killing more of the enemy than the enemy does, and Doss, as a Seventh Day Adventist and a child of a soldier scarred by the devastation of World War I, wants no part of killing.
But Doss’s morals and values are surely put to the test when the Army tries to court martial him for refusing to obey orders, and even more when Doss must put all his skills as a medic to the test during the horrifying battle of Hacksaw Ridge, where Japanese troops slaughtered American soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. Since Hacksaw Ridge is based on a true story, Gibson stays decidedly close to the source material, and Gibson, along with screenwriters Robert Schenkkhan and Randall Wallace, understands that it’s more about the journey than the destination. And while Doss dodges bullet fire to bring every wounded soldier he can back to base, he steadfastly holds to his ideals.
As faith-based movies go – and make no mistake, this is a faith-based movie, probably Gibson’s most direct since The Passion of The Christ – Hacksaw Ridge is remarkably effective. Even those who do not share Doss’s sensibilities can appreciate the strength of Doss’s convictions. But it wouldn’t work if not for the exemplary performance of Andrew Garfield, who puts a real, gritty, bleeding face to the beatific Doss. In a lesser performance, Doss would be insufferable, but Garfield plays Doss as something of an Everyman, one who loves his soldier-brothers, fiercely patriotic, but who will not allow his love of country compromise his values. Garfield is likable and compelling, and brings an “Aw shucks” quality to Doss that feels sincere and true.
Garfield’s performance is so good and natural that everyone around him suffers by comparison – the clichéd-drunken father (Hugo Weaving), the always-accepting mother (Rachel Griffiths), his ever-loving wife (Teresa Palmer) and his tough-as-nails commander (Vince Vaughn). Much of Hacksaw Ridge plays, frankly, cornball and old fashioned, and not always in the best of ways. Gibson wants to evoke the halcyon days of the 1940s, and mostly succeeds due to the impressive cinematography of Simon Duggan, who can transition from the beautiful days of pre-war life to the horrors of a blood-drenched Cliffside battle with ease. But a lot of the dialogue is not very subtle. That’s never been Mel Gibson’s strongest suit as a director, which may be why he’s shied away from dialogue-driven story in his previous films.
But when Gibson shows the ugly face of war, Hacksaw Ridge attains a kind of rugged, horrible splendor. Gibson is, bar none, a master of action directing. His shots are always coherent and brutal, and even during the chaos of war, Gibson and Duggan capture its devastating beauty, which oddly undercuts the message of the film. Doss may be a hero for not taking lives, but Gibson sure makes war look pretty. That’s not necessarily Gibson’s fault – it’s been said that there is no true anti-war film, because the very nature of filmmaking tends to glorify violence, even when the filmmaker isn’t intending it. Even Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan suffers from this – war action is inherently thrilling and cinematic, and it’s a problem that only a very few filmmakers have been successful in figuring out.
But Mel Gibson also understands his audience, probably far more than even his critics realize, critics who have underestimated his talents since the very beginning. The Passion of The Christ is a vicious film in its depiction of violence, but Gibson tapped into something that was universal for its audience. He’s managed to do the same with Hacksaw Ridge, although very few films are as violent as The Passion of The Christ, and Hacksaw Ridge never comes close to that movie’s brutality. And with Andrew Garfield, Gibson has found that center that Hacksaw Ridge requires for us to endure the horrors of war. Doss is undoubtedly an American hero, and Gibson appropriately treats him as such. Hacksaw Ridge is powerful and entertaining, and even when it isn’t quite working, we can appreciate its point of view. As a message film, Hacksaw Ridge may be one of the most effective ever made. It’s only a matter of whether you believe the message. But believe it or don’t – Mel Gibson means for every explosion, every bullet, and every death to matter. In that aspect, Hacksaw Ridge succeeds.