Calvin Law reviews Mel Gibson’s return to the director’s chair.
You don’t go into a Mel Gibson film expecting nuance or subtlety with regards to religious subtext. This is the man who directed Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. Christian imagery and references to the gospel are to be expected. And, like those films, Hacksaw Ridge utilizes them for a very particular purpose. In Braveheart it romanticised a Scottish rebel’s plight for martyrdom, in The Passion of the Christ it helped both honour and deconstruct the religious identity of Jesus, and in his latest film – a biographical account of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) – it gives us insight into the very particular mindset of a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who enlisted in WWII as a conscientious objector. A combat medic who went into battle without a single weapon, he ended up rescuing over 75 soldiers in the Battle of Okinawa – a remarkable story to be sure, but one that could easily have become sanctimonious in the wrong hands.
Luckily, Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan know how to strike the perfect balance between honouring the incredible faith and courage that Doss displayed with regards to his religious devotion, and confronting the grittier sides of the story. It is a tale of a man’s earnest pacifism tested by the most extreme circumstances of war, here depicted as hellishly unrelenting. There is a small but harrowing moment in the midst of one of many unforgettable war sequences where an American and Japanese soldier unleash primal screams of unbridled rage, as their flailing limbs interlock in a violent embrace, and a grenade goes off between them. War drives men to the very edge – quite literally here on the titular ridge, a battleground enclosed by the cliff face of Maeda Escarpment in Okinawa. There is no good or bad in killing, only pain and suffering that blurs all such distinctions; Mel Gibson’s latest film depicts war vividly, but refuses to glorify it in the process.
The film builds up to these harrowing sequences with a languidly-paced and enjoyably earnest first half. Garfield, with his sprightly step and goofy but infectious grin, is pitch-perfect as he romances the nurse at a local hospital (Teresa Palmer) and gradually develops a passion for medicine. These scenes are contrasted with the rather more sombre tones of Doss’ home life, where an alcoholic father (a brilliant Hugo Weaving), haunted by memories of WWI, looms over the family. The ominous news of WWII from abroad finally compels Doss to enlist in the army.
It’s in the standard ‘boot camp’ scenes where we see the film finally begin to take shape as a war film. Gibson, far from sticking to the formula, gives these scenes a surprising amount of humour (largely stemming from Vince Vaughn’s abrasive drill sergeant) and just enough characterization to the fellow soldiers. Most importantly, we see Doss’ faith be tested. Knight and Schenkkan’s screenplay sets up Desmond’s endearing conviction in his beliefs to be questioned, not unreasonably, by his fellow soldiers, who are incredulous at the prospect of a soldier refusing to bear arms into battlefield. The film transitions momentarily into a courtroom drama of sorts, and it’s in these scenes we get glimpses into how Doss will respond to adversity on the battlefield: resourceful and intelligent in expressing himself, he has a passionate, soulful desire to help repair a world torn apart by war and violence. Between the strength of Doss’s faith, well-earned over the course of the film, he is an easy lead to root for.
As excellent as the first half of the film is, the second half is downright brilliant in its presentation of the battlefields of Hacksaw Ridge. The trick with war films nowadays is to bring something new to the table: if we want to see Doss earn his devotion to God, we have to see him struggle. And boy does he struggle alongside the other soldiers of the 77th Infantry Division from the very moment they enter Okinawa. Here, as they watch rows of wagons carrying dead, dying and disillusioned soldiers, the stench of death and decay can be felt in every frame. Tension is ratcheted up to unbearable levels and releases into unrelenting bursts of violence, the gore terrifying but never excessive, as we watch valiant men crushed by the enemy forces. Some dive in with courage and hard-boiled conviction, others are realistically portrayed as terrified and out of their element, and many are mown down in great numbers. The chaotic incoherence in many action films nowadays is nowhere to be found here; each brutal death on either side is realized in often brief but incredibly effective fashion. The cinematography of Simon Duggan and the concise editing of John Gilbert create a visual experience of war like few others, the flames and gunfire against the stark gray landscape creating some unforgettable images. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is the sound editing: each gunshot and scream imprints itself powerfully in your mind.
In the midst of it all this is Doss, valiantly diving into the fray to help every man he possibly can. The striking thing about Gibson’s approach here is that he presents the somewhat ridiculous feats of this man in a heightened, romanticized fashion, almost paying tribute to him as some sort of Christ figure – and it feels completely deserved. Doss did actually save all these men, he was every bit as brave as the film portrays him as, and all that religious imagery powerfully illuminates the man’s unquenchable faith. Garfield, in a largely reactionary role in these sequences, is spectacular. His best work of the year was in Silence, but I’m certainly glad he’s getting awards love for his powerful, heartbreaking portrayal of a man shattered by the horrors of war but selfless enough to hold it together for his fellow soldiers, and even help wounded Japanese soldiers he comes across. Don’t be surprised if his repeated invocation to ‘Please, Lord, let me get one more’ rings again and again in your head; Hacksaw Ridge is perhaps the most powerful cinematic event of 2016, on a visual and emotional level.
Hacksaw Ridge is released in UK cinemas this Thursday, January 26. See the trailer below: