Mel Gibson's stint in Hollywood hell is coming to an end. After all, he has returned to the big screen in 2016 as both an actor and a director, with kind reviews and ecstatic buzz surrounding both films. He still doesn't seem all that remorseful for his hateful comments, but people in town are willing to work with him and there's an audience for his films. He'll never be fully embraced and I can't imagine that he'll ever factor into an awards race again, but Gibson will find a way to get his vision on the big screen. To me, this summer's Blood Father was just the warm-up act. It's a small, tense, and violent thriller, a pulpy and inherently slight B movie that often feels like an act of atonement by Gibson. However, it wasn't going to be his comeback movie- it made so little at the box office that it's not even in Box Office Mojo's database. No, the main attraction was always going to be Hacksaw Ridge, a World War II epic and Gibson's first directorial feature since 2006's Apocalypto.
And sure enough, I was right. Hacksaw Ridge was received warmly at the Venice Film Festival and rode into theaters last week on a wave of awards buzz (I still don't see it happening, but let's roll with it) and positive reviews. The film's opening weekend was really strong, and even with an overabundance of competition for adult audiences in the month of November, I have a feeling that Gibson's film is going to continue to play really well. Not only because it's a very good flick, but because it also feels like a rarity in the modern cinematic landscape. It's a true epic, a grand war story that evokes the feeling of the sweeping old-fashioned Hollywood films of yesteryear. Hacksaw Ridge can be a bit hokey at times and it succumbs to some of Gibson's flaws as a filmmaker, but there's no question that it's an energetic, vicious piece of cinema, a gorgeous war film that is both brutally effective and endlessly captivating.
Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a medic who was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving dozens of men at the Battle of Okinawa, despite his refusal to carry a weapon and his status as a Conscientious Objector. As a young boy, Desmond nearly kills his brother in a fistfight by clubbing him in the head with a brick (yes, this actually happens). At this moment, Desmond clings to his faith as a Seventh-day Adventist, with an extreme focus on the "Thou Shall Not Kill" Commandment. Desmond becomes a strict pacifist, and when you see what he's dealing with at home in regards to his drunken father (Hugo Weaving), it's not hard to understand why he's totally against violence. In the early part of the film, Desmond meets Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a beautiful nurse who he quickly falls in love with. The two lovers get engaged, and Desmond's life at home seems pretty set.
But while things are great on the homefront in Lynchburg, Virginia, World War II is raging all around the globe. Desmond's brother (Nathaniel Buzolic) signs up to fight, and Desmond enlists as well with the understanding that he won't be forced to carry a weapon if he doesn't want to. In peak physical shape, Desmond breezes through basic training and does everything that the United States Army asks of him. Until Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) tells him to pick up a rifle. Head military officers like Howell and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) are enraged by his refusal to follow orders, and the other members of his crew treat him as a coward who's no use to them on the battlefield. Spearheaded initially by Smitty Ryker (Luke Bracey), the rest of Doss' unit beats on him mercilessly, but he doesn't give up. He sticks to his beliefs, and after a few strings are pulled, Doss is granted his wishes. However, as one of the bloodiest battles in the war commences, Doss is confronted with the brutal realities of combat and the unique possibility for him to save the lives of his brothers in arms.
Hacksaw Ridge has been billed as a cross between a war movie from the 1940s and Saving Private Ryan, which is an apt comparison. It has a folksy, genuine charm that I really enjoyed, but it's also a nasty film about the savagery of combat. It does not pull any punches in its depiction of war, and it is shocking and horrifying to watch. Gibson's approach fills you with a sense of dread initially before bludgeoning you with some of the most stomach-churning violence in recent memory. The brief opening scene, which features plenty of bullets and burning bodies, gives you a taste of what's to come, but there's no preparing you for the ferocity of the major war scenes. Where Steven Spielberg wanted audiences to feel the sheer terror and emotion of storming the beaches of Normandy in Private Ryan, Gibson wants to overwhelm the audience and send them into a panic with Hacksaw. Blood, guts, limbs, and bodies fly everywhere in the climatic battle scenes, and after a while, there's a shocking sense of numbing sensory overload.
The final charge on the Ridge that serves as the film's coda feels a bit like an afterthought, but there's no denying that Gibson has crafted some top-notch war sequences. There's a palpable atmosphere in Hacksaw Ridge that is chilling and spectacular, and an unpredictability that will keep you on the edge of your seat. So if you're squeamish or not a fan of blood and guts, yeah, this isn't the movie for you. Oddly enough though, people of all ages would probably love the first half of this film. Hacksaw Ridge is a film of two distinct halves, featuring a split so perfect you could almost put an intermission between the two. The first half is all about Desmond's life before he's shipped out to the Pacific, while the second half delivers the big-ticket battle scenes that audiences came to see. They're both effective and enjoyable in their own unique way, which gives this film a special quality that we simply don't see too often anymore. This almost feels like two films shoved into one, oddly a positive in this instance. Hacksaw Ridge is long, but it's engrossing enough that I never felt the length at all, and in fact, the length and the patience of the storytelling are two of the film's greatest assets.
Performances are strong across the board, with Andrew Garfield delivering an exceptional turn as Doss. I do think that the film's handling of Doss' convictions can be a bit one-note at times, but Garfield injects the character with such a pure likability that its easy to overlook the film's flaws. Doss represents wholesome, old-fashioned heroism, which can be grating and tiresome in the hands of the wrong actor. Thanks to Garfield's sympathetic, good-natured performance, Doss becomes a hero that anyone can identify with. Garfield carries this movie, but he receives some solid back-up from Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, and Luke Bracey. Palmer is good as Dorothy, Desmond's fiercely determined love interest. She's charming and sincere, but never one to take his crap either. Weaving has one dynamite scene as Doss' alcoholic father, which could go down as one of the best monologues of the year. And finally, I loved the relationship between Doss and Bracey's Smitty, which evolves and grows steadily as the film progresses. It's one of the most tender and emotional aspects of the film, and it has a surprising impact that I didn't expect.
Gibson has delivered a visceral, endlessly likable, and compelling drama with Hacksaw Ridge. By all accounts, this is a good film. He falters a little bit with the film's major themes, and he hits a few bumps in the road that I was disappointed by. For one, the depiction of the Japanese adversaries is entirely one-dimensional, which I think goes against the humanist, pacifist ideas that the film proposes. They even make a point to show that Doss saved Japanese soldiers, but his American counterparts are quick to emphasize that they didn't make it. For a film about faith and humanity on the battlefield, I was hoping for a bit more depth to the antagonists. I think it's also fair to call Hacksaw Ridge a religious film, as it leans heavily on the connection that Doss had to God and how that carried him on the battlefield. I'm not usually the target audience for the faith-based film market, but there's no question that this was a necessary part of Doss' story. My only issue is that Doss is an extreme example, and while he was an undeniable hero, Gibson seems to reject the idea of complexity or stubbornness in his portrayal of Doss. I'm sure that Doss was deeply assured of his convictions, but I wish there was an attempt to go beyond "This is what he believed" and find Doss' true inner motivations.
Hacksaw Ridge is an imperfect film, but an unquestionably gripping one, a harrowing war epic that is as moving as it is disturbing. Gibson's visionary direction never falters, as he delivers a film that is simultaneously corny, old-timey and refreshingly urgent. There's never a moment where I was bored, and even though some of the religious and expository elements flirt with being a tad too hokey, Gibson manages to somehow keep everything in order. Garfield, Weaving, and Bracey are all excellent, and the battle sequences are truly some of the most startling, powerful war scenes ever put to film. Hacksaw Ridge is a sweeping, gritty war saga, a film of profound beauty and ruthless barbarity. Gibson has made a true throwback to the lost art form of epic filmmaking, which makes it all the more special in today's disposable blockbuster culture.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.3/10)
Images courtesy of Lionsgate