Hacksaw Ridge is a grisly WWII movie that excels as an action/thriller, but has mixed success in realizing its loftier thematic ambitions.
Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) grows up in Lynchburg, Virginia, as a member of a working-class Christian (Seventh-Day Adventist) family that includes his father – Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), a decorated WWI veteran who is traumatized by his experiences during combat. As a young man, Desmond pursues a relationship with a nurse named Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), but is compelled to enlist in the U.S. army and serve his country as it enters WWII. While Desmond joins the army with the intention of serving as a medic on the battlefield, his status as a conscientious objector and refusal to even pick up a gun – much less use one – puts him at odds with his fellow military men.
Despite the efforts of Desmond’s superiors Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) to dissuade him from carrying on with his plans, Desmond refuses to either quit or compromise his personal beliefs – and makes it out of bootcamp in one piece, having been granted permission to join the war without being armed. Desmond and his battalion are then deployed to the island of Okinawa, where they are given the seemingly impossible mission of taking the treacherous battleground known as Hacksaw Ridge.
After a decade away from the director’s chair, two-time Oscar winner Mel Gibson returns behind the camera and proves himself to still be a formidable cinematic storyteller, with the true story-based Hacksaw Ridge. As he did on the films Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ, Gibson takes his time on establishing the overarching themes and religious implications of Hacksaw Ridge during the movie’s first half – before paying them off with a second half that is relentlessly brutal and gruesome, but impressive all the same. Both the character-driven first half and dramatic story elements in general here are admittedly the less effective aspects of Hacksaw Ridge – meaning Gibson’s war movie doesn’t have quite as much narrative depth to match its violence.
Gibson, in collaboration with Hacksaw Ridge screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (All the Way), shapes the true story of Desmond T. Doss into a larger parable about Western spirituality – one that is most effective during the more intimate moments between its characters and less so during the scenes that feature on-the-nose dialogue or heavy-handed symbolic imagery loaded with religious overtones. The shadows of other films about war and the U.S. military hang heavy over Hacksaw Ridge‘s head during its first half too; from the way that the movie opens mid-combat (a la Saving Private Ryan) to the bootcamp scenes that put a more playful spin on similar plot beats from Full Metal Jacket, as well as the old-fashioned romance between Desmond and Dorothy that never fully rings true. Strong performances and direction do help to elevate Hacksaw Ridge during its first half, even as the film’s reliance on these cliches threaten to pull it down.
Fire and brimstone, both figuratively and somewhat-literally speaking, is what Hacksaw Ridge does best – with its precisely-designed battlefield sequences being perhaps the best – and certainly the most grotesque – featured in any WWII movie produced post-Saving Private Ryan. Gibson and his cinematographer Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby, Warcraft) film the movie’s action scenes in a clear and cohesive fashion – favoring crisp individual shots that are then smoothly edited together to form sequences that are precise in their construction, compared to the action featured in a number of modern Hollywood productions. Hacksaw Ridge itself is almost more of a character than a major set piece thanks to this approach; a wasteland riddled with dead bodies, underground tunnels where enemies could be looming around any corner and other nightmare-inducing things that leave a stronger impression than many of the film’s human characters. For similar reasons, those who feel that Gibson can be guilty of fetishizing violence in his films to an almost darkly-comical degree may has similar problems with Hacksaw Ridge‘s portrayal of warfare.
Hacksaw Ridge includes solid payoffs to the story threads revolving around Desmond’s relationship with his tormented father Tom as well as his incredulous superiors in the army – with supporting cast members Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington all being well-cast and solid in their respective roles (which play to each individual actor’s strengths as a performer). The various members of Desmond’s battalion, as played by a variety of characters actors, do get their (brief) moments to shine both before and during combat, but are more two-dimensional by comparison; and save for Luke Bracey as Smitty, their relationships with Desmond aren’t very dramatically meaningful for it. Teresa Palmer does equally fine work as the more practical and conventional romantic foil to Desmond, but her character Dorothy still boils down to a pretty standard love interest type.
Desmond himself is very much the emotional anchor throughout Hacksaw Ridge and Andrew Garfield delivers enough charm, passion and vulnerability to make the film’s protagonist compelling. Those moviegoers who weren’t overly fond of Garfield’s portrayal of Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man films may have similar issues with his performance here, but Garfield aptly captures the spirit of Desmond; that of a fellow who stands firmly by his spiritual principles and has just cause to do so, even thought he understands the challenges and risks that his “extreme” approach carries with it. Desmond, as a character, might have benefitted from the film delving deeper into the moral quandaries and grey areas of his actions – but that criticism perhaps extends to Hacksaw Ridge and its take on WWII history, as a whole.
Hacksaw Ridge is a grisly WWII movie that excels as an action/thriller, but has mixed success in realizing its loftier thematic ambitions. The film teeters on self-parody at times thanks to its reliance on over-used story/character tropes and the sequences of violence that border on over the top (as do certain visual metaphors in the movie) – but thanks to Gibson’s sturdy guiding hand, Hacksaw Ridge amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Those who have never been fans of how Gibson the filmmaker approaches such topics as history and religion aren’t likely to feel too different about how Hacksaw Ridge handles these subjects either. However, for those who have been anxiously waiting for him to step behind the camera again over the past decade, this film should earn Gibson the director a warm welcome back into the spotlight.
Hacksaw Ridge is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 131 minutes long and is Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images.
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