I’m not afraid to say it — I’ve been a fan of Mel Gibson since Lethal Weapon. I’m not going to say everything he’s starred in has been solid gold, but up until now, there hasn’t been one film that he’s directed that I haven’t thought was an extraordinary piece of cinematic artwork, and that includes his mostly underrated feature directorial debut, The Man Without A Face, a small, poignant study in a relationship between a man and his student that bravely explores how that type of relationship can be taken out of context, but one that helps each person heal in different ways. Gibson’s newest directorial effort, Hacksaw Ridge, adds to his unique repertoire, proving once again that no matter how you may feel about the man personally, there’s no denying his intellect when it comes to capturing the heart of a story and conveying it in the most genuine way possible, holding true to the convictions of who he is as a man and what he believes as a Christian.
That conviction becomes the heart of the true story that Hacksaw is based on — a raw interpretation of a man who holds true to his beliefs no matter how much pain and grief they may cause him and those he cares for. As a young man living in a small town, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) hated the idea of someone else fighting for his freedoms and beliefs, especially when he was quite able to do so himself. At the same time, because of his Christian upbringing, a confrontation with his drunk, abusive father (a fantastic Hugo Weaving) and a youthful skirmish with his brother that ends in near tragedy (both incidents of which are mostly glossed over), Doss doesn’t believe in using any form of weapon. So it’s a contradiction of sorts when he enlists in the army during World War II, even though he does so with the idea of becoming a medic as a conscientious observer.
Neither his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) nor his commanding officer (Sam Worthington) understand this fertile defiance, so when Doss refuses to go through weapons training, he is court marshaled and told to plead guilty for disobeying orders and get dishonorably discharged. His loving girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) is also conflicted about his decision. She doesn’t want to see him hurt, nor does she want to see him in prison. But she believes in him and trusts that whatever decision he makes will be the right one, no matter how much she wishes he’d set his pride aside and do what was right for her and their future. When he pleads not guilty, a message from Washington allows Doss the right to go into battle without a weapon. And so he receives the chance to serve his country and his God, and do so without killing a soul.
Unlike most war films, Hacksaw Ridge is very much a portrait of a man who doesn’t let the forces of evil break him or his faith. In our current political climate, it’s very hard to find someone who holds such conviction to an idea that no matter which way the political winds go, that they’ll hold true to that idea and not waver under pressure from any one person or group. Having such conviction and integrity is seen almost as a weakness; unless you are willing to go against your values, you’re never going to make it in this world. Doss was a man who didn’t let that form of bullying change who he was, able to rise above the noise and do what he knew was right, based on the word of God. It was in this faith that drove his unflinching courage, and helped build the respect in how Doss utilized his strength, not only in his faith, but on the battlefield as well.
And Gibson doesn’t hold back on that, either. The battle sequences are stunningly surreal, portraying the chaos of war in a much more heightened realism than I’ve ever seen on film. Saving Private Ryan is still the gold standard for battle sequences, but Gibson comes close to surpassing that heart-pounding, occasionally grotesque authenticity. When a man gets shot in the head, or his legs are blown off, or he uses an enemy (or the corpse of a friend) as a shield, there’s no question you’re experiencing every splash of blood, every explosion, every cry for help right next to the soldiers on the battlefield. It’s so chaotic, in fact, that it’s hard to know who’s who during the frantic pace and editing style of these sequences. But that’s what makes it so real. The bedlam of war doesn’t allow you to get your bearings; you simply do what you can in the moment and pray you survive.
Unlike his other films, though, Gibson does falter ever so slightly in a couple of areas. Firstly, I can’t say I cared much for Vince Vaughn as a hard-nosed drill sergeant, who seems to be trying too hard to do his best Patton impersonation rather than allowing his performance to grow organically. That being said, the rest of the cast is spot-on, especially in the Doss family. I didn’t once believe that these actors weren’t related, and the chemistry between everyone on screen brings out the fear, the laughs, the annoyance, the outrage and the love that every man, woman and child needs to bond and work together and find a footing in their beliefs and their convictions enough to do what’s necessary in a time when most of America was angry and wanted justice, but could have used a little more faith, a little more God and a little more respect for their fellow man and their enemies, both outward and inward.
The relationships between Doss and his girlfriend, his family, and his fellow soldiers are also lacking the depth needed to truly expose the deep well of emotion Gibson was shooting for. This may be because he tries to incorporate a few too many soldiers into the mix so that we’re never able to become attached to any one soldier and to care what happens to them on the battlefield. But Gibson makes up for that in what he’s actually able to pull out of everyone on screen. The power and the emotion that the actors convey are all on point, delivering a fantastic resonance behind the battle of Hacksaw Ridge and conveying a harrowing story that drives home a very important message:
Courage isn’t found at the end of a gun; it’s found deep within the honesty of your soul.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Arrival, Almost Christmas, Shut In and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.