To see “Hacksaw Ridge” is to come away with two distinct impressions. The first is that it’s a brilliant return for Mel Gibson, which confirms his position as a director with a singular talent for spectacle and a sure way with actors. The second is that . . . maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if Gibson were to talk to somebody. That is, while lying on a couch, while the other person takes notes.
Is that unfair? Critics should stick to reviewing movies and not armchair psychology – that’s true. Yet no complete description of “Hacksaw Ridge” can omit the fact that it’s like watching neurosis in 24-frames per second, that it’s a bloody, gory, twisted immersion into a cinematic consciousness almost unique in its body obsession and grotesquery. The movie’s first image is an overhead shot of severed limbs and hacked up corpses piled into the back of a cart, and that’s Gibson just getting warmed up.
Yet here’s the thing. In spite of that – and even partly because of it – “Hacksaw Ridge” is one of the best films of 2016. And the victory is all the more sweet for Gibson in that he succeeds on his own weird terms. After almost a decade of being a Hollywood pariah, he comes back with a film that represents not even a hint of compromise. This is pure, unadulterated, go-for-broke Gibson, and what do you know? He makes us all like it.
Gibson’s dark directorial impulses spoiled his two previous movies, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) and “Apocalypto” (2006), but at least this time he has a subject that justifies letting loose. “Hacksaw Ridge” is a war movie with battle scenes that, in their violence and chaos, make the first 30 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” look like a folk music concert. There’s no logic to what happens – heads snap back, blood sprays, arms and legs fly into the air, and explosions come from in front and behind. I’ve never been to war, but from this movie more than any other, I think I have a inkling of what it might be like.
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“Hacksaw Ridge” is the real-life story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist from a small Virginia town, who enlisted in World War II as a medic, but refused ever to touch a gun. Seeming a lot like Anthony Perkins, Andrew Garfield plays Doss, a gangly country boy whose slightly goofy demeanor conceals an odd cast of mind and a profound physical and moral courage. As with Perkins, we know there’s more to this man than what we’re seeing. But with Garfield, we suspect that that hidden part is entirely good.
In its own blood-soaked way, this is an anti-war picture. Doss life is almost wrecked by war from childhood. His father (Hugo Weaving) was shattered by his own war experience, and was a violent, distant, erratic and angry presence in the home. In fact, the cart full of dead bodies at the start of the film depicts a World War I scene, from the father’s military service. From Dad’s experience, Doss becomes a pacifist, but his own patriotism and the culture of his small town make it impossible for him to become a conscientious objector. He wants to see battle, but as a medic, not as a fighting soldier.
Though the violence lingers in memory, being so intense, it must be said that “Hacksaw Ridge” isn’t only battle scenes. Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s screenplay, which closely follows the facts, mostly deals with Doss’ interaction with the men in his unit, who peg him for a weirdo and decide that he’s a coward. The officers and non-commisisioned officers, particularly a Captain (Sam Worthington) and a sergeant (Vince Vaughn, who has never been better), participate in the hazing. They are guilty, as we soon see, of the most complete misreading of a man’s character imaginable.
Yet Garfield’s performance and the precision of Gibson’s direction allow us to understand how anyone might misread Doss. He’s a mild, odd character, with his head connected to some inner space, so that we know that he’s either some kind of moral genius or an idiot. Just playing the odds, idiot is always the safest bet. Teresa Palmer is ideal in support, as Doss’ wife. The loveliness of her performance resides in the way she lets us know that she can see him – that she sees the strength and specialness of his nature before anyone else.
The title, “Hacksaw Ridge,” comes from the Battle of Okinawa, where Doss distinguished himself. Make no mistake, if you walk through the door of that theater, you’re enlisting for Okinawa, too. This is a tough movie, but it’s also accomplished and driven filmmaking, ultimately in the service of something good.
Gibson is attuned – strangely, weirdly attuned, attuned in a way that makes you wonder how he gets through the night, but attuned all the same – to the horrors of life. But this time he’s saying, “Look. Here is a spirit that came through the horror. This is how bad it was, and yet he stayed human.” The least we can do is watch.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn
Director: Mel Gibson
Length: 131 minutes
Rating: R (intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images)
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