What is best way to honor a revered pacifist? An ultra bloody biopic seems an unlikely answer, but that’s what arises in Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s stately yet grisly biopic of Desmond T. Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for combat duty in World War II. Gibson, as a filmmaker and often as a performer, has always exhibited a penchant for the intensity of battle, usually draped with the values of faith and the oppression of such – those have been touchstones of past directorial efforts like Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. So on the surface, there appears a definitive through-line between the filmmaker and Doss, one perhaps paper-clipped with a quiet wisp of atonement for a Hollywood alpha to be welcomed back into the clubhouse.
The inherent problem and ultimate conundrum that lies within Hacksaw Ridge is that in pursuit of telling Doss’s story, that of quiet and humble nobility, the end product is altogether disingenuous to its subject. While, at the same time implementing and highlighting some of the very best components of classical movie-making, particularly and most persuasively in the form of Andrew Garfield’s commanding lead performance as Doss. It’s all the more troubling as it goes along. Gibson opens his latest with a brief tease of the terror to come but pushes back fairly quickly, as we go flashback to Doss’s childhood; the loom of war, however is always visible.
The first chapter in it of itself encapsulates a brutal sense of near blood-lustiness, even as we open in earnest on a seemingly benign sequence of seemingly natural boys-will-be-boys innocence. Desmond (as a child played by Darcy Bryce) and his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) race and roam the rural woods of Virginia. Like a gut to stomach, and with intentional echoes of Cain and Abel played to a fever pitch, the playfulness turns violent as Desmond hurls a brick towards Hal’s face as parents Tom (Hugo Weaving), a grizzled World War I veteran with a frightening case of PTSD and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) look on. Desmond’s pacifist leanings arise nearly instantaneously as the movie swiftly cuts to a grown-up Desmond, a seeming embodiment of aw-shucks goodness. If there’s a segment of the film that feels particularly out of place and sorted with a nod of indifference it’s in this slight sliver where Desmond falls instantly with a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), his eventual wife – perhaps fittingly, they meet as she takes his blood; the rest is a lather of corny Hayes Code-aligned meet cutes and first kisses; if for nothing else Hacksaw Ridge takes an extremely classical approach to pacing, structure and dialogue – the script was penned by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan.
Yet, war is looming and Desmond, motivated by his faith and conviction, feels he must take part. He enlists – to his father’s consternation – as a combat medic, only to find himself in a heap of distress once his commanding officers – Vince Vaughn’s gruff Full Metal Jacket-lite Sergeant Howell and Sam Worthington’s inconsistently accented Captain Glover are the most prominent – learn of his refusal to pick up a firearm, much less use one during the early trials of training. What results is a deluge of intimation – physical and mental – from his senior officers and army peers as well as the threat of being court marshaled. The sequences themselves are staged with a rugged brutality – save for minor, if off-putting, splashes of humor (courtesy of Vaughn’s son-of-a-gun showboating and the one-joke visual gag of a nudist soldier) – but as Doss certainly required a mighty resolve, Garfield uses his emotional and articulate faculties as a performer to goad the audience to soldier forward as well.
Doss’ real-life achievements are both unique and inspiring. He not only managed to avoid court marshal and assisted in the Battle of Okinawa, without the aid of a firearm where he saved 75 lives by personally carrying them to safety. As a movie and specifically as a biopic, the framework and intensity of how this heroism is staged is where the tonal murkiness flashes like a laser. Gibson and his team of talented technicians certainly seem primed to stage an all-out “war in hell” indictment for the ages. And while executed with an exacting and bewildering sense of scope – not quite the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but viscerally alert nonetheless – this is where Gibson’s traits as a director seem to contradict those of Doss as his subject. It’s not just that the closing reels of Hacksaw Ridge are violent, or even excessively violent, but there’s an attuned sense on the part of the filmmaking that the violence is something to revel in.
This stark and unpleasant sensory assault includes limbs turned to nubs, splattered organs and blood bursting every which way as the rats come to harvest as the sun starts to set. Certain images and frames, if caught without context, would seem appropriate in a horror film, a spaghetti western or an exploitation film. Most urgently, however, is that these elongated sequences of terror and massacre tend of lose focus of Doss himself as if he was just a point of entry and now just another hat jostling a barrage of bullets. Gibson is too accomplished a filmmaker and too proficient in the whats and hows of elemental movie-making, but he loses his subject in the course of Hacksaw Ridge amidst all the blood and guts.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
As efficiently and professionally tuned as Hacksaw Ridge is, there’s a strange and startling discordance in tone and shape between the film that director Mel Gibson has made and his subject. Doss, played with beautiful openness and a translucent sense of compassion by Andrew Garfield, is observed as a man of modesty, civility and quiet grace. The film surrounding film on the other hand is loud, operatic and jolted, often and mercilessly, with a heightened and angry sense of blood lust, a patent of the filmmaker. Even while seemingly contained in a mode of earnestness and reverence, it’s the violence (even outside the war field) of the movie that sustains and certain points feels fetishized and glorified and in this particular case, misses the point entirely.