Directors: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer
Genre: War, Drama
Hacksaw Ridge is a brutal but meditative study on faith, violence, and masculinity, set in the middle of World War II just as the Allies and Japan are about to enter into the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles in the war. They say people mellow with age, but time away from Hollywood has done nothing to mellow Gibson, whose fascination with pure, unabashed violence is just as evident here as it was in “Passion of the Christ”. Both a biographical melodrama and a wartime epic, Mel Gibson holds nothing back in telling the story of war hero Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a pacifistic, God-fearing combat medic who was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Doss is the textbook definition of a Mel Gibson hero, a man of deep faith and conscience, who only fights when he is provoked and pushed to the limits. A son of an abusive, alcoholic veteran who suffers from PTSD from his own time serving in World War I, Doss signs up for the army even though he had promised himself to never wield a firearm. This refusal to bear arms stems from a place of repentance and forgiveness–when he was younger, he nearly shot his father after intervening in his parents’ violent fight. It is impossible to ignore the parallels with Gibson himself in Doss’ search for absolution from God, as Gibson seeks forgiveness from the filmmaking world for his sins (and has seemingly succeeded in doing so, rightly or wrongly).
For all of its violence and gory excitement, it is not until midway through the film that the story clicks into gear and Doss becomes a character to genuinely root for beyond his place as the protagonist. Its first act is by far its weakest and its most conventional, setting up Doss’ childhood and his rationale for joining the army in spite of the terrifying effect war has had on his father and his refusal to even touch a gun. The romance between Doss and Dorothy, a less god-fearing but still religious nurse whom he meets and proposes to prior to joining the army, is straight out of the textbook for wartime melodramas. It is only Andrew Garfield’s charisma and earnestness in playing Doss that saves these first scenes from being too corny. Garfield has always been at his best when playing characters undergoing a crisis of conscience, and his performance in Hacksaw Ridge is no exception. He is tremendously easy to empathise with, and its fantastic to see him in roles capable of showcasing his talents after the travesty that was Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man reboot.
When the film does fall into place, though, it truly is a spectacle to watch, however grim and gruesome it does get. The final act becomes a surreal amalgamation of smoke, bodies, and blood, equally beautiful as it is horrific, and you can’t take your eyes off the screen even if you want to look away. The battlefield combat flows perfectly, as does the evolution of Doss as a character. When he does pick up a gun (although not with the intention to kill), it doesn’t feel out of character at all, but instead a step he has to take in his acceptance of violence as a necessary evil in certain circumstances.
As the battle wears on, it’s hard not to be moved by the story. Doss is undoubtedly awe-inspiring. Fueled by his faith, he roams the battlefield over a day and a night in search of living survivors (interestingly, both American and Japanese) to lower down a cliff using a makeshift rope pulley to the American base. It is immensely satisfying to watch his fellow soldiers come to respect Doss after having perceived him as less of a man (or really not a man at all) for his beliefs.
Doss’ goodness, for lack of a better word, is what makes him fascinating. Gibson juxtaposes this will to do good with humanity’s capacity to inflict unimaginable amounts of violence. He questions whether we, and Doss, are capable of reconciling these diametrically opposing values that are innate to us. The film answers in the positive–we can do good even we are inflicting, or explicitly condoning violence. Whether that is a satisfying answer is debatable, depending on one’s values and beliefs. But, Gibson’s journey to get to that conclusion is well worth watching.