HACKSAW RIDGE ˝
2016, R, 131 mins.
Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss / Teresa Palmer as Dorothy Schuttle / Hugo Weaving as Tom Doss / Vince Vaughn as Sergeant Howell Sam Worthington as Captain Glover / Rachel Griffiths as Bertha Doss / Matthew Nable as Lt. Cooney / Luke Bracey as Smitty
Directed by Mel Gibson / Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan
need to deal with a rather large and obvious elephant in the room before I
review HACKSAW RIDGE.
Mel Gibson is a very controversial and polarizing figure in Hollywood with ample and indefensible indiscretion-skeletons in his closet, to be sure.
Yet, when a camera is put in this man's hands, there's no denying
that proverbial magic does indeed happen.
He won an Academy Award for his direction on 1995's BRAVEHEART and
his work on 2006's APOCALYPTO was
among the most overlooked of the last decade.
This man is a bona fide filmmaking maestro and might be the finest
actor-turned-director to emerge in Hollywood in the last 25 years.
You can personally despise the man and his personal choices in life,
but as for his quarterbacking movie making skills...he's unquestionably a
highly gifted and respected auteur.
Now that we've
got that out of the way, let's focus on his latest fact based historical
offering in HACKSAW RIDGE, his first film as a director in a decade.
The film deals with the true story of Desmond Doss, the first
conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in
combat. He did so without wielding any weapon of any kind, nor did he
attack and/or kill any enemy combatant while serving as a medic during
World War II. He was a staunch
Christian that treated the teachings of the Bible as seriously as a heart
attack, especially one of the Ten Commandments that plainly outlines an
anti-killing platitude. Not
only did he miraculously make it through basic training without touching a
firearm (which nearly got him thrown in military prison for disobeying
direct training orders from his
superiors), but he also did go on to serve in the bloodiest battles in Okinawa
on Hacksaw Ridge, where the film gets its title from.
Despite having no means of defending himself, he bravely saved the
lives of 75 injured soldiers.
If HACKSAW RIDGE were not based on fact it would have been a decidedly difficult dramatic pill to swallow.
Desmond Doss was a man that
did serve, refused to
carry firearms and declined to attack anyone that attacked him.
This story is made all the more astonishing considering the
absolute gallantry and intestinal fortitude that he undoubtedly had while
in battle. That, and HACKSAW
RIDGE emerges as a different kind of compulsively fascinating war drama in
the sense that it not only focuses on one man's limitless heroism on the
battlefield, but also on his grit and determination to stay true to his
spiritual beliefs and convictions that adhering to his faith while serving
God and country in the war was the right and honorable thing to do.
It's also a film that disseminates the meaning and value of
patriotism in different forms, which further makes its subject matter all the more
If HACKSAW RIDGE
were to have a flaw then I would say that its opening half is arguably its
most routine and conventional as far as war dramas go in terms of dishing
out expositional particulars about its hero.
Gibson opens the film with a flashback by introducing us to the two
Doss brothers, Desmond and Howard, and their tenuous relationship with
their World War I shell-shocked and alcoholic father, Tom (Hugo Weaving),
a man that seems prone to extremely violent outbursts on his children and
wife (Rachel Griffiths) due to suffering from what appears to be PTSD.
Flashforward several years and we meet Desmond as a young man
(played in an Oscar nomination worthy performance if there ever was one of
pure conviction by Andrew Garfield) that's passionately devoted to God,
but equally devoted to the cause of enlisting to serve his country in WWII
after Pearl Harbor is attacked. Both
he and his brother enlist, much to their perpetually drunken father's
dismay, but Desmond takes a drastically different road towards boot camp
than his sibling, deciding to enter as a conscientious objector and become
a field medic.
not many in his platoon, nor his drill sergeant (a refreshingly cast Vince
Vaughn), seemed impressed by his unwillingness to engage in weapons
training. This brings him in
direct opposition with another superior officer (a never-been-better Sam
Worthington) that has grave doubts about Desmond's worthiness to serve.
History, alas, has shown that Desmond made it through boot camp -
albeit not physically and mentally unscathed by those who accosted him out
of spite - and made it as a medic, serving in the aforementioned battle of
Hacksaw Ridge, during which time both sides used any means necessary to
usurp control over the other. Ultimately,
Desmond found himself in a traumatically precarious situation that
him passionate to serve his country and protect his wounded
comrades in arms...without carrying any arms himself.
The one thing
that makes HACKSAW RIDGE so intrinsically compelling is, yes, Desmond
himself, and his story is one of a man of deeply cemented faith whose
perception of violence and man doing harm to fellow man was shaped not
only by his religion, but also by his very upbringing.
Desmond was brave on multiple fronts: He was brave for standing up
to his father's vicious attacks as a child; he was brave to enlist and
train as an objector in spite of his fellow grunts hating him for
it; he was brave for never backing down to even the threat of a court
martial; he was brave for standing up to the very military higher ups that
collectively thought that he'd never amount to a respectable man on the
battlefield; and he was obviously brave for sticking to his
non-violence/no guns pacifism even on the warfront while bullets,
grenades, and motor fire were constantly being levied at him.
The fact that he risked life and limb to save 75 wounded men - men
that never once afforded him an inkling of respect during basic
training...and beat on him to prove how much they resented him - makes
Desmond's story all the more inspiring.
RIDGE makes the segue away from Norman Rockwell-esque hometown drama
towards fully encapsulating the ravages of war in Okinawa, Gibson cranks
up the film to THIS IS SPINAL TAP levels of 11 by harnessing the breathtakingly
barbaric and shockingly frightening extremes of the war itself.
Not since SAVING PRIVATE RYAN has a film depicted the hellish
maelstrom of savage humanity on humanity mayhem that life on the
battlefield was like for both sides like this one does.
As he proved with BRAVEHEART and APOCALYPTO, Gibson once again
reaffirms himself here as a masterful filmmaker of delivering bone
crunching and artery spewing carnage...and the relentlessness of his
approach here is both mesmerizing and horrifying in equal dosages.
With stupendously enveloping cinematography by Simon Duggan and a
bravura sound design that captures every nauseating ambience of these
sequences for maximum stomach churning impact (without much reliance on a
music score throughout to help sell the tension), Gibson is wholeheartedly
and triumphantly in his aesthetic wheelhouse here; it's some of the most
strikingly envisioned and executed action sequences that I've seen in a
film in a long time.
Gibson is also a solid actor's director, and he compliments his film's
matchless technical merits with enriching and authentically well rounded
performances by all. Garfield rolls out a thick southern accent that thankfully
doesn't become too distracting as Desmond, but the beauty of his
impassioned and poignant performance here is in how he meticulously
commits himself to it during every waking moment during the film.
Desmond is an unbreakable cauldron of goodness, integrity, and
courage in the film, and Garfield relays all of that without making
Desmond feel too outlandishly noble minded; there's rarely an inauthentic
moment with him in the story. Garfield
has terrific chemistry with Teresa Palmer, who plays a kindly nurse that
becomes Desmond's wife-to-be and emerges as an unwaveringly focused
supporter of her fiancé's cause. Hugo
Weaving may not be able to hide his accent as well as his co-stars in the
film, but he's undeniably powerful as a deeply pained man whose addictions
and past trauma get the better of him.
Rounding them off is Vince Vaughn, finally granted a detour from
his over saturated motor-mouthed man-child roles in comedies to play a
rather unlikely role as Desmond's tough as nails, but inwardly tender
drill sergeant, a part that makes great usage of the star's ability to tap into
both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the character.
complained that HACKSAW RIDGE paradoxically relishes in and exploits its own
blood-soaked combat while preaching a message of peace and pacifism. These critics
miss the boat altogether. Gibson
is not lazily sensationalizing the violence on graphic display here for
exhilarating gung-ho effect. No,
the gore here is justified, seeing as Gibson is attempting to cement
viewers in the incredibly dangerous situations that Desmond found himself
in while trying to save those 75 wounded souls...and all while being
utterly defenseless. A sanitized portrait of the battle of Hacksaw Ridge would
have all but neutered the film's overall message and gut/soul punching
impact. Gibson's film is
absolutely not for the faint at heart, but his motives here for unleashing
the war scenes in all of their sickening detail are crucial to selling
Desmond's selfless bravery.
When all is said and done, HACKSAW RIDGE is a war drama that does adhere to many of the formulas and conventions of its genre, especially during its first 50-60 minutes, but once it thrusts audience members headfirst into Desmond's shoes while serving it becomes a gripping wartime salute to the power of belief and what it takes to remain true to one's self. HACKSAW RIDGE will easily touch evangelical viewers and placate their faith, but the film will also move agnostic and atheist filmgoers with its achingly moving portrait of one man's unstoppable convictions. The fact that Gibson never sermonizes and makes the film feel one-sidedly preachy as a faith based piece of propaganda is to its ultimate credit.
As a heroic soldier of World War II, Desmond Doss was a brave heart of a different and highly unique sort...and once that deserves celebrating.
My CTV Preview - HACKSAW RIDGE
My On-Air CTV Review - HACKSAW RIDGE