Produced by Paul Currie, Bruce Davey,
William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic,
Brian Oliver, David Permut, Tyler Thompson
Screenplay by Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn,
Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer,
Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh
Mel Gibson’s invigorating, infuriating and inspirational Hacksaw Ridge opens on assaults of orange flooding the screen.
First, flames and explosions, then, human bodies within them being hurled directly at the camera. We cut from the haunting and horrific to the hopeful—a young Desmond Doss in his youth, where a juvenile incident provides the child with an early perspective on the value of human life.
Doss stares at his family’s artistic display of the Ten Commandments, zeroing in on “Thou Shall Not Kill.”
It’s this connection between Doss, his God and this specific commandment that carries us through the remainder of the film.
Doss grows up, falls in love with a beautiful girl and enlists in the war because he refuses to stand around while others bleed on the battlefield for his freedom. It’s an honorable approach that many took back then, but Doss differs once he’s among his fellow soldiers by directly refusing to carry or discharge a weapon during combat, choosing rather to be a medic in the field. This is met with confusion and contempt by Doss’s contemporaries and command, some believing him to be acting superior through his faith while others attribute his actions to pure cowardice.
Regardless, Doss never budges, and Hacksaw Ridge is the story of how this particular soldier went on to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa without ever once firing a gun or taking another human’s life.
This is a remarkable story told in remarkably visceral ways through Gibson’s approach.
The first hour or so of the film builds and builds on Doss’s story, delivering an Old Hollywood-style cheesiness that may indubitably prove off-putting for many a moviegoer. But we need this hokey escalation to highlight the humanity before the horror. From Andrew Garfield’s effortlessly appealing smile and charm as Doss, to his compelling love story with Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), to his hard-earned comradery amongst his peers, the actor carries the weight of the movie’s first half with the single best male performance so far this year and a highlight of his evolving career.
However, as soon as we enter the battlefield, this is Gibson’s movie through and through.
The director composes scenes of carnage with such excruciating expertise that the experience becomes intolerable—as it rightfully should be. The combat never feels like Hollywood heroics, contrasting grandly with the many moments that preceded it. There is blood and anguish and guts and gore and tears and desperation—men become animals and lose the essence of their souls. Gibson constructs some of the most stomach-churning war scenes I’ve seen put to screen, and the fact that these scenes repelled me so much means the filmmaker is doing everything exactly right.
War is ugly as all hell—nay, war is hell, to use a tired expression—and Gibson uses this fiery landscape to produce a piercing exposé of our most basic moral compositions and how war snatches these away like an effortless assassin. At one point, I simply burst into tears.
Hacksaw Ridge delivers just a brief pause before diving back into the warfare, and it all feels so relentless until hope enters the picture once more, as a stranded Doss remains on a vacated battlefield to save the lives of all the wounded men who were left for dead. Doss’s heroics are emotional and powerful, a reminder of how humanity can reign in even the darkest of times.
As the film nears its final minutes, Gibson admittedly lays on the Christ imagery a tad thick, but it works well in this particular story where “God” and “Good” are essentially inseparable. The goodness shines throughout the entire film, even in its ugliest moments and regardless of how you feel personally about this particular filmmaker.
I’m a sucker for films about good people, and Desmond Doss is one of the great ones.