Hacksaw Ridge

(Mel Gibson, 2016)

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Mel Gibson's first film as director in 10 years opens with a brutal, slow-motion battlefield tableau. Soldiers become fountains of blood. Limbs are separated by grenades. Human shapes engulfed in flames tumble through the air. Hacksaw Ridge, by the way, is about a soldier who refuses to harm another person. Mel Gibson is back, for better and for worse.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), an American conscientious objector during World War II. As a Seventh-day Adventist, Doss refused to handle a firearm, even during basic training, but overcame the resulting court martial to serve as a combat medic in Okinawa. He then single-handedly saved 75 soldiers during the battle at Hacksaw Ridge.

Doss' life may be new to the screen, but the screenplay molds his story to hit familiar war movie beats. In rural Virginia, Doss courts a nurse (Teresa Palmer), whose picture he keeps in a Bible which he carries at all times. His father (Hugo Weaving) is a veteran reduced to a jittery, alcoholic shell by the demons of World War I, and though he forbids his sons to serve in the military, they both enlist. Doss won't stay behind while others fight and die for him, and though killing for any reason violates his beliefs, Doss figures he can serve as a medic and save lives instead of taking them.

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Once the particulars of Doss' background are out of the way and he enters the Army, many scenes feel positively standard-issue. Such as The Barracks Scene, where Doss meets his archetypal platoon mates – there's Teach, the educated one; Hollywood, the vain one; and Smitty, the intense hotshot who has it in for Doss from the start. Drill instructor Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) barges in and peppers his new recruits with entertaining insults and condescending nicknames. And so on. There's a Competitive Basic Training scene. A Stirring Courtroom scene. And once combat begins, a Bonding Between Two Formerly Antagonistic Soldiers in a Foxhole scene.

As the story shifts to combat in Okinawa, there's a sense of tonal whiplash. Up to this point Hacksaw Ridge feels like a throwback to Old Hollywood – there's a comforting directness to the proceedings, the language doesn't get much rougher than “stinkin' animals,” and the acting style is plain and earnest. Yet the actual battle on Hacksaw Ridge is surely one of the most sickeningly violent ever put on-screen. Saving Private Ryan set the modern standard for war violence, but if that film's impact comes from feeling lucid and all-too-real, Hacksaw Ridge feels transgressive, like a garish nightmare thrown in our faces. Admittedly, Desmond Doss' story might lack a sense of stakes without an R-rated approach. But Gibson doesn't just go there – he goes there, and keeps baby-stepping over the line. The movie lost me at its full-fledged depiction of seppuku, but others may jump ship sooner.

Hacksaw Ridge doesn't have much on its mind beyond basic storytelling – in one scene, Teach fulfills his nickname by reciting a bit of thoughtful prose during a break in combat, to which another soldier responds, “That stuff doesn't have much use out here.” When Teach reluctantly agrees, it feels like the film is offering a rationale for its own side-stepping of philosophical issues. Pacifism during wartime could be a rich thematic backdrop, and though the film dips its toe in this territory with a few lines of dialogue, it stops short of actually exploring anything. The movie carefully avoids taking a position – it's not pro-pacifism, pro-military or pro-Christianity. If anything, it's simply pro-Desmond T. Doss, an unabashed celebration of one man's heroism and spiritual fortitude. For the type of movie Hacksaw Ridge wants to be, that's probably enough.

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Hacksaw Ridge has also been touted as a change of pace for Mel Gibson. His earlier films like Braveheart and Apocalypto celebrated heroes who engaged in horrific violence, whereas Hacksaw Ridge features a pacifist. But to see this as an evolution for Gibson is a shallow reading of the situation. The Passion of the Christ had a pacifist at its center, too, and that didn't stop Gibson from cranking the gore up to eleven. And Desmond T. Doss – a man whose extreme fortitude drives him to accomplish incredible things and earn legendary status among his peers – has more in common with William Wallace than you might initially suspect.

None of this makes Hacksaw Ridge a bad movie. Gibson achieves his old-fashioned ambitions in a fair-enough, gotta-hand-it-to-him sort of way. The storytelling is sure-handed and watchable, and even if the emotional beats are obvious and expected, there's still some resonance, thanks to strong performances across the board (Hugo Weaving stands out in particular). Hacksaw Ridge might just manage to justify its existence as the millionth World War II film, and Mel Gibson's fascination with graphic violence remains a curious and troubling signature of his work.

The movie ends with a brief reel of interviews featuring the real-life Doss and other survivors from his platoon. In some ways this glimpse of reality trumps the dramatization that precedes it. But it also reinforces the feeling that, regardless of your views on Gibson's movie, Desmond T. Doss is a hero worth celebrating indeed.