Hacksaw Ridge Review

Posted: November 16, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

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Written by Daniel Simpson

It might be hard for some to imagine, but there was a time when Mel Gibson was one of the most important of Hollywood figures. He was a successful movie star, a well-respected actor, and had even began to make a name for himself as a serious filmmaker. He won an Oscar for Braveheart and Passion of the Christ was one of the most fiercely discussed films of its time, but for many of us, Apocalypto is his masterpiece. That film showed Gibson applying top-notch craft to a setting rarely depicted in film while simultaneously delivering one hell of an action movie and survival story. The achievement of Apocalypto has been overshadowed however by Mel Gibson’s personal life, particularly a series of derogatory and offensive statements the man made over the period of a few years. I’m not going to defend these claims, but I will say as someone who admired his work as an artist, it was frustrating to see. This is someone who had really blossomed into an amazing directorial talent after all. But after ten years, Mel Gibson has finally returned with the war drama Hacksaw Ridge, an imperfect film, but one that validates why Gibson’s talents are so valuable.

The film tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a young man and devoted Christian living in Virginia in the 1940s. The son of a bitter veteran (Hugo Weaving), Desmond decides to enlist in World War Two and serve his country. Desmond’s religious practices prevent him from picking up a weapon and killing people, but none the less insists on serving as a medic. He is met by some resistance from army brass, but ultimately is given the go ahead and is sent to The Battle of Okinawa, where he would go on to save over 75 lives.

The first third of the film mostly deals with Desmond’s young romance with a nurse (Teresa Palmer) set against the backdrop of a Norman Rockwell-esque simple American town. This section of the movie is…not good, in fact I’d say it’s borderline terrible. This whole section is just incredibly corny. Desmond is presented as a very simplistic character, we really don’t learn much about his faith in this section, and his budding romance is equally simplistic. The film doesn’t present these two really getting to know each other. There are no meaningful conversations or interesting things learned, the two just engage in some Hallmark style cutesy moments. The film also juxtaposes this with some brief flashes of violence from Desmond’s father which clashed with the rest of the tone. This section does have some bright spots, namely some solid production value and an interesting performance from Hugo Weaving (despite a weird accent) but it’s ultimately not a very promising start.

In the second third, the film shifts to Desmond’s experiences at boot camp. This content is a bit better, in large part because it deals with Desmond’s religious objection and struggles with authority, which are handled more evenly than I would have expected. However this section also suffers from your standard war movie clichés, like the various personalities of the other soldiers and the hard ass superiors. This is yet another movie with an aggressive drill sergeant who hurls insults at his troops, only the stereotype is overwhelmed by the fact that Gibson cast Vince Vaughn of all people in this role. To be fair, Vaughn ends up doing alright, but seeing Vaughn throw obscenities at his troops leans closer to farce than anything else.

Finally, the film arrives at the Battle of Okinawa and Desmond’s acts of heroism and the results are pretty damn spectacular. Gibson may not be the first director to depict the horror, chaos, and brutality of war, but goddamn does he do a spectacular job at it. Gibson’s depiction is particularly primal. The faces of soldiers from both sides are awash with rage and fear while the barbaric levels of violence reflect the savage nature of war. Gibson also shrouds the battlefield in fog, which is important for the plot, but it also serves to give the film the feeling of a horror movie. These battle scenes can be hard to watch for some, but they are brilliantly realized and on a technical level are the best depictions of warfare presented on film in quite a while.

It is amidst this horror where Desmond’s heroics occur and this the real meat of the movie. It is indeed inspiring to see one person save so many lives and Gibson milks these moments for all their worth. Occasionally, the film maybe goes a little too far in celebrating Desmond, particularly at the end when real interview footage is shown of the man. Obviously, Desmond was a hero, but that is apparent in his actions and at times the film’s attempts to force those messages in felt heavy-handed. None the less, Gibson’s execution of this section is amazing. Desmond’s heroism is moving and it’s also very thrilling.

I suspect Hacksaw Ridge was, to some extent, a calculated effort on Gibson’s part to return to Hollywood filmmaking safely. The story is that of straightforward heroism and it returns to a moment of history which has been documented several times in mainstream cinema alone. There is no ambiguity or moral questions to leave with, this is simply an uplifting story of heroism and Gibson embraces the saccharine in the first act fully. However Gibson also used the film as an opportunity to continue to excel stylistically. The film presents an unflinching look at warfare that is both horrifying but also highly compelling. This is not a film I can wholeheartedly embrace. I think large chunks of the film are questionable and even poor at points, but that third act offers some spectacular cinema and for that reason I still think Hacksaw Ridge is worth seeing in theaters. The film is also further proof that for whatever personal failings he’s had, Mel Gibson remains a powerhouse filmmaker when working with the right material.

B-

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