Director: Mel Gibson
Screenplay: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn
Runtime: 139 Minutes
Mel Gibson has been out of the Hollywood mainstream for a while following his professional and personal meltdown some time ago, but he’s been slowly operating around the fringes of his former success by starring in tough, smaller scale action flicks like last year’s surprisingly entertaining Blood Father.
Hacksaw Ridge is his first directorial feature in over a decade, a biographical war drama which chronicles the heroic actions of Desmond Doss: an American soldier who managed to save the lives of over 75 soldiers in a deadly confrontation in Okinawa – even though his devout Christian beliefs meant that he never actually fired a single weapon. While the film isn’t quite Gibson’s best work overall – that privilege still belongs to Apocalypto – this is still a tremendous return to the field.
The film’s first half dedicates itself to the routine structure of base camp character work, as well as fleshing out the back-story of his family life back home with his turbulent father (Hugo Weaving) and his lady love, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). The sequences play out as expected, but the mood and self-control is what’s notable. The atmosphere of Simon Duggan’s luminous cinematography and stark roughness echo’s the work of Frank Darabont, and it really does give us time to fully align our empathies with Doss and his predicament.
The moment the drama reaches Hacksaw Ridge, the film explodes. The magnitude of the battle sequences is awe-inspiring, to say the least, and the technical ability of the second unit and makeup departments must be applauded. This is an incredibly violent and daunting depiction of warfare in such close proximity, and Gibson pours over all of it in excruciating, ravenous detail, and his direction of these scenes is commanding and attention-grabbing. He certainly knows how to compose a frame or shot in an effective and fierce way.
There must be something said though of the manner in which Gibson chooses to linger on said sequences of violent confrontation. For a film concerning a pacifist, this is one of the most sadistic war films of recent years, and it’s here that many people might be disconnected from it. Having said that, Gibson’s directorial work in the past has exemplified that he is reflecting on his own beliefs through a means that he can process, and this could be the work of someone with a serious martyr complex. His allusions to sacrifice and suffering come hand in hand with his explicitly Christ-like visual references, placing the peacekeeper at its heart as a very deliberate – if thudding obvious –parable.
Andrew Garfield is fantastic here as the combat medic with a heart of gold, his resolve to do right by the will of his own beliefs and the duty of his country puts him through a rigorous barrage of physical torment. This is the second film this year in which Garfield has played an individual fighting to hold on to his faith while confronted with a world of incredible pain and suffering – this appears to be his penance for The Amazing Spider-Man productions, fulfilling the promise that he’s held all along.
There's a wide cast of supporting characters introduced in Doss’ unit, who all then have their names taken away to be replaced with shorthand nicknames for the sake of time – courtesy of a quite winningly cast Vince Vaughn as Sergeant Howell. They’re all pretty well cast even if they fall into stock types, with only Sam Worthington being the weak link as the wobbly accented Captain Glover. The opening act might as well belong to Hugo Weaving, whose extraordinary performance as Doss’ war-torn and broken-hearted father is truly affecting at times.
The real surprise is how taught the narrative is. It’s not baggy in structure, gets right to the business of the conflict, and then in the final act resorts to a simple enough process of methodical resolution, with Doss’ silent chants of “Help me get one more” being his guiding light of unpretentious and noble heroism.
This is a stripped down war drama that really has its heart in the right place; a gallant, occasionally ridiculous and hard-edged story of faith. It’s a film at odds with the humbleness of its real-life counterpart, who never wanted his actions glorified, but even if you don’t personally believe in its teachings it’s a story worth being heard.