As mentioned back in August in my Blood Father review, I firmly believe that Mel Gibson, despite his public image, is still one of the best working filmmakers and we should be a bit thankful for the media that he creates. Hacksaw Ridge furthers that opinion even more. On one hand it’s this God-fearing man making this God-fearing Christian movie about a conscientious objector. On the other, it’s this visceral kick to the teeth that gives the brutality in Saving Private Ryan a run for its money. While those two things don’t always successfully blend with each other, Gibson’s hand leads things into an almost impressionistic direction, making stained glass church art out of a story about uncompromising faith. Gibson’s first directorial feature since Apocalypto in 2006 is also the main reason as to why I think “delicate gusto” should be a phrase used more.
WWII American Army Medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) became the first conscientious objector to win the medal of honor because of his heroism during the Battle of Okinawa. Hacksaw Ridge recounts the events in which his heroism set an example, despite the growing pressures from the Army telling Doss to quit. After all, he refused to pick up a weapon, so how could he fight? He didn’t. He saved lives as a field medic instead.
As a man of no faith, it’s always interesting to see how artists interpret religion into their films. Gibson just happened (heh, yeah right) to pick a story that places Christianity on the same pedestal where Doss’ heroism is. More than anything, I think Hacksaw Ridge says profound things about how Doss is metering out God’s will, or maybe he is an extension of God’s will? I haven’t really made up my mind yet. Like all art, Hacksaw‘s religious reasoning is up to whomever is trying to interpret it.
One thing is for sure, though: Gibson isn’t exactly a pacifist. For the longest time during the film’s sprawling 130-minute runtime, I kept wondering when Gibson would start dropping hammers on the normalcy that runs rampant through the film’s first hour. Watch as Doss falls in love with the beautiful and unassuming nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer)! Despair at Doss’ difficult childhood with his alcoholic veteran father (Hugo Weaving)! Regain hope when the Army accepts Doss for who he really is! While the exclamation points are meant to denote the story being told in capital D dramatics, Gibson still finds a way for all of these familiar points to come up unassuming. In a conversation with another critic, I mentioned that the first half of Hacksaw worked for me because it’s unassuming nature is one of Gibson’s most wonderful skills. Some take his drama as boring, but I take it as primer for the unthinkable, something that we see far too often in his films. This time, it’s the battlefield that’s never looked bloodier. The unthinkable looks normal next to unthinkable acts preceding it. If you start off with something a bit more normal and understandable, you make way for the thematic meat of your story to excel even more.
And oh, boy, does it excel once it finally gets to the battlefield. I don’t know if I mentioned this previously in this piece, but Hacksaw Ridge is really violent. Really, really violent. Like, holy shit, please don’t take your date to see this nice movie about the good in human beings. It drops so many damn hammers that you end up becoming numb to the violence. Luckily, the ending turns into some hallucinatory portrait of a bunch of humans behind or betwixt God-like imagery. Warning, though: If you think this is going to be some well-rounded take on Americans fighting Japanese in WWII, you are wrong. It’s made very clear here that the Japanese are the enemies and that they should only be treated as such. Therefore, the moments where we have the enemies alone come off and are jingoistic and exploitative.
There ain’t no school like the old school, said the critic. Well, yeah, but imagine that old school directed by Mel Gibson! I wish I had this internal monologue before stuffing my face with steak & cheese sub before seeing Hacksaw Ridge. A truly delicate and animalistic story about one of the U.S.’s greatest heroes.