Like it or not, Hacksaw Ridge, the first directorial effort for Mel Gibson in 10 years, is a triumphant return for the all-but banished director. The trailers preceding the film’s release exuded Hollywood cliche and overwhelming cheesiness and, though both are still present in the final product, the passion and sincerity imparted from Gibson and the film’s star, Andrew Garfield, along with the unbelievable true story of conscientious objector and Medal of Honor recipient Desmond T. Doss, makes Hacksaw Ridge one of the most compelling and, naturally, brutal war films in… well, the last decade.
Part love story, part courtroom drama, the rest war story, Hacksaw Ridge follows Doss, as these movies do, from his humble beginnings in a small town in Virginia, where he resides with his mother, brother, and father (Hugo Weaving), a WWI vet suffering from PTSD. Growing up and witnessing the pain and suffering endured (and often inflicted) by his father, when the time comes to for Desmond to enlist in the army, he does so with the intention of never firing a weapon and serving purely as a medic. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with his brothers-in-arms nor his superiors – your typical drill sergeant, here in the form of Vince Vaughn, and commanding officer played by Sam Worthington – and being labeled a coward, Desmond’s convictions are put to the test as he endures ridicule and physical abuse and is subsequently court-martialed. Only through his faith and the support of his wife (Teresa Palmer) and father does Desmond overcome the odds and is permitted to enter “the hellfire of battle” without a gun. And so commences the battle at Hacksaw Ridge, Okinawa, where Doss would go on to save over 75 men, lowering each one down from the 400 foot high escarpment where the battle was taking place.
Leave it to Gibson to make a brutal and gritty, faith-infused war movie, but the more you read into the life and incredible heroics of Desmond Doss, the more you realize that few directors could’ve handled the material with more sincerity and gravitas than what Gibson has on display here. There is a clear divide in the film – with each half balancing the other – the first half following Desmond at home and through his training, the second is pure, bloody mayhem, and I mean that to every extent. While the first half of the film is where you’ll find most of that cheesiness I mentioned earlier, it’s the calm before the storm and one that should be savored, for just as soon as Doss’s battalion makes the climb over the ridge, Gibson throws you into the harrowing, horrifying and claustrophobic nature of battle. Most comparisons will likely be drawn from Saving Private Ryan, and whilst the imagery is certainly on par with that film, Gibson makes it his own, and from the moment the battle starts, I found myself on the edge of my seat, holding my breath, overwhelmed by the intensity pouring from the screen.
Matching Gibson’s directing efforts, Andrew Garfield is equal to the task of bringing Doss’s story to light. I’ve never been a huge fan of the actor and one of the common complaints I’ve heard regarding the movie refer to his “country boy” accent, which is definitely hammed up in the trailers. Seeing the film, however, Garfield commits whole-heartedly to the role, and plays Doss with such earnestness and sincerity, he’s what makes the film so endearing. Attempting not to give him too much credit, but his performance reminds me of what Tom Hanks did with Forrest Gump – he’s charming (though not nearly as “stoopid”) and it’s an utterly convincing performance. The rest of the cast does well in support, shamelessly filling in the war movie stereotypes, but this is Garfield’s movie through and through, and I optimistically wait to see what he does in Martin Scorcese’s Silence.
Hacksaw Ridge isn’t without it’s faults, when all is said and done. Though the Hollywood cheese is just “part of it”, there are those handful of moments when you can’t help but roll your eyes. And while the pacing is consistent, I couldn’t help but feel that the climax, involving “the final assault” on the ridge, just falls into a montage of the fighting that we’ve already seen, just without any heightened moments, with Doss appearing out of nowhere to do his bit, and before you know it they’ve won the battle with little coherence to what just happened beyond just watching everyone fight in slow-mo (historical spoilers, get over it) and the film is over minutes later. It feels a little rushed and underdeveloped for what is, otherwise, a well-balanced and evenly paced film. This aside, it’s great to have Gibson back in the director’s chair, and what he’s delivered here was well worth the wait as it stands to be one of the best war movies in recent memory. It may be too run-of-the-mill to win anything major this year, but it’s certainly worthy of awards recognition, at the very least for Garfield, and hopefully leaves with the promise of more Mel Gibson films in the near future.