Mel Gibson’s new war film “Hacksaw Ridge” is peculiar in the sense that it’s extremely violent and gory (sometimes relentlessly so) but its protagonist is curiously nonviolent. Based on a true story, the film revolves around American Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) a World War II medic who refused to kill or even carry a gun but still managed to save more than 70 wounded soldiers.
Otherwise, the picture is a fairly straightforward biopic/ tale of wartime heroics. There aren’t a lot of surprises plot wise. Outside of the violence, the filmmaking feels very old fashioned. Meanwhile, the battle sequences are brutal — to say the least — but also exhilarating and highly stylized. Gibson wants to emphasize the ugliness of war as well as the glory of it. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with making war look exciting and glorious (most war films do, whether intentionally or not) but there are times when Gibson goes overboard, the violence coming off as cartoonish, which partly undermines the film’s sincerity.
“Hacksaw Ridge” works best as a character study of its conflicted hero. What’s most peculiar about Doss is that he wants to join the war effort but is morally opposed to killing/fighting (arguably the main ingredient of war) making the film’s stance on war/violence nuanced. On the one hand, war is such a twisted, ugly thing wherein killing (one of the worst things someone can do both legally and morally) is normalized. On the other hand, war is often associated with honor and courage-- putting your life on the line (and putting aside your normal feelings towards violence/ killing) for the greater good, for your country. Doss is committed to the war effort in pretty much every way except putting aside his personal feelings towards violence. It’s a fascinating dilemma that distinguishes “Hacksaw Ridge” from other war films.
When Doss arrives at boot camp and refuses to even fire a rifle at a target his fight to remain in the army begins. The fellow soldiers and commanders immediately label him a coward. Here, Gibson wisely doesn’t make Doss into a self-righteous jerk.
Garfield is superb in the role, giving Doss a combination of noble stubbornness and modesty. Doss will go to jail before he sacrifices his beliefs but he isn’t arrogant or holier-than-thou. He never tries to impose his beliefs on others (To his credit, Gibson downplays the religious aspect of picture, at least for most of the picture) or openly denounces the violence committed by other soldiers. In fact he sees it as a necessary and unavoidable component. He believes in war and wants to do his part on the battlefield (saving lives) but cannot bring himself to personally commit murder. Overall, Doss is painted as a down to earth man whose beliefs seem to come from a genuine and humble place.
I do wish Gibson had taken more time to flesh some of the other soldiers in Doss’s unit, either in boot camp or out on the battlefield before the action happens. There really aren’t any memorable soldiers outside of Vince Vaughn as an insult-shouting Sergeant and that’s mainly because he’s playing against type. There isn’t much to the character. Camaraderie between soldiers is an important staple of the war picture that’s sorely missed here. It would have also made Doss’s heroics more impactful later on.
As for the battle scenes themselves…whoa boy. Doss may not believe in killing or violence but Gibson sure does. Soldiers on both sides are killed in droves—shot, sliced, stabbed, blown into pieces, burned alive. Intestines are littered all over the battlefield. At one point, an American solider uses the upper half of a human torso as a shield to gun down five or six enemies. The sound design is almost ear shattering; I could feel my theater seat vibrate multiple times. They’re brutal and stylish; Gibson uses a lot of slow motion and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ orchestral score is energetic. The battle sequences arouse as much exhilaration in the viewer as it does discomfort.
Perhaps they arouse too much exhilaration. The violence becomes more stylized and extreme as the picture goes on to the point of ridiculousness. At one point, after what feels like a two minute montage of both US and Japanese soldiers getting killed in excess, I though to myself: “OK, cool it Mel.” The Japanese soldiers are mostly one-dimensional cartoon villains; there’s even an ultra stylized Seppuku scene that’s laughable in how over the top it is. I don’t have a problem with cartoonish violence but in the context of a sincere biopic/war film it dilutes things a bit.
That being said, despite all the carnage and mayhem, Gibson never bends the facts and betrays Doss’s character. It would be easy to put him in a situation where he’s “forced” to pick up a weapon but that would have dishonored the character and cheapened the film further.
With all the personal stuff that’s plagued Gibson’s career over the past 10 years or so, it’s easy to forget how great an actor he is and how great a director he is. Though he overdoes the violence a bit, Gibson still crafts a compelling portrait of an unusual war hero — motivated by an obligation to serve his country and an unshakable resistance to violence.