Mel Gibson last directed a film back in 2006 with the Mesoamerican epic “Apocalypto.” Earlier that year, he received a DUI during which he notoriously made some terrible statements. With 10 years away from the spotlight, Gibson returns with “Hacksaw Ridge.” Is this his redemption?
“Hacksaw Ridge” recounts the true events of the heroics of World War II corporal and combat medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). Growing up in a religious family, with a drunk for a father who brought too much violence to the household, Doss develops into a pacifist by never wanting to resort to the violent ways he was brought up with. Yet, his knack for offering a helping hand and his love for his country leads him to enlist in the war, despite the seemingly contradictory nature of his pacifism.
At boot camp, Doss refuses to even hold a rifle, let alone go through rifle training. Garnering ridicule from his superior officers and beatings from his fellow soldiers, Doss struggles to make it through and is even sent to trial to be potentially discharged. Miraculously making it out as innocent, he marches on to the front lines. But without a gun, how will Doss be of any help?
Gibson relinquishes any doubt of Doss’ capabilities early on, but this is expected as he has never been a subtle director — this is the guy who spent two and half hours showing the brutal torture of Jesus across the last few days of his life.
The opening shot of “Hacksaw Ridge” shows several dead bodies, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the film, Gibson throws horrific image after horrific image at the audience. Some of it gets truly nauseating, but the filmmaking around those images justifies their place.
The combat scenes that result in those spilt guts, among other things, are expertly directed — Gibson hasn’t lost touch on the visceral front. He brings out a sense of suffocating chaos but renders that chaos effective through coherent composition, fluid editing and some striking cinematography. This all leads to the film creating an environment true to the events of the war, an environment that places a helmet on viewers’ heads and straps a gun to their backs.
The juxtaposition of Doss, a religious man and conscientious objector, next to this intense violence works wonders, and a large part of this is due to Andrew Garfield’s tremendous performance. His endearing accent, glowing grin and soft eyes bring a physicality to his beliefs. Whereas some of the dialogue might seem hokey, each line throws a hook into viewers’ hearts thanks to Garfield’s embodiment of all the things that brought Doss to his position in the war. That kind of simple, emotional engagement by Garfield — which will see some awards buzz — imbues each shot of him in the horror of the battlefield with an immense sense wonder.
Garfield has some great help. His fellow soldiers all check the boxes of the kind of men who might come out of the era and his superior officers fill their roles perfectly, offering some purely “war film” moments of drama and humor in their interactions with the soldiers. An example being Vince Vaughn’s performance as the rifle company’s sergeant, which offers some hysterically funny, “Full Metal Jacket”-like interactions with soldiers.
It’s in those relationships and their development that the movie builds on its beating heart. When Doss showcases miraculous bravery — which earned the real Doss the first Medal of Honor given to a conscientious objector — he is commended by previous doubters. Doss’ story is powerfully brought to life.
Gibson’s films have never been perfect, and “Hacksaw Ridge” has some glaring issues. The love story with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) is laughably ineffectual other than to show how silly and lovable Doss is. There’s a point when Dorothy says, “You better come back to me,” and yet, she’s nowhere to be found at the end.
Gibson also struggles with the technical composition of the story — the first 30 minutes are all over the place and the ending is rushed. But mainly, there are small, jarring moments where Gibson sinks into problematic representation of the Japanese. For much of the film, they remain faceless, which actually serves the story well. But when Gibson gets up close, his portrayal of their expressions — camp stares of menace and stereotyping screams — is troubling. On top of that, there is a wholly unnecessary and extremely uncomfortable scene of seppuku.
None of those drag the film down all too much, though. “Hacksaw Ridge” — thanks to Gibson’s strengths in action and Garfield’s entirely convincing, emotionally effective portrayal of Doss — remains a thoroughly moving tale of how a man who rejects violence can end up as the biggest hero in the most violent of times.
While Gibson will never be fully redeemed for his past statements, he’s made a confident return to filmmaking.