Mel Gibson is an insane man. A commonly known fact that may be, for sure, but I feel like I had to get that out of the way before starting this review. Do me a favor, though, and try to separate Mel Gibson “the person” from Mel Gibson “the artist” before making any judgments both on this movie and this review. I’ve seen the controversial figure in several films over the years, but as fate would have it, “Hacksaw Ridge” is the first film I’ve seen directed by Gibson. That’s right: I haven’t seen “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” or anything else where he’s gone behind the camera.
The trailer for this movie didn’t impress me a whole lot, but I was curious enough to see what Gibson and his odd yet impressive cast had in store. While I was hoping for something entertaining, I couldn’t prepare myself for how brutal, relentless, tender, sweet, and powerful this ended up being overall. The movie was reported to have gotten a 10-minute-long standing ovation after its world premiere screening at the Venice Film Festival. Having seen what the Venice crowd saw, I understand why they applauded just long enough to make their hands hurt. A couple of minor technical issues aside, as well as one character leaving the story less than halfway in never to be mentioned or shown again, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a brilliant war drama, plain and simple. I went in hoping to like it, and I came out awestruck and moved more than I could have imagined.
For those who don’t know who Desmond Doss was, he enlisted in the army in the 40s as a combat medic during World War II. He didn’t do this to impress anyone or for egotistical reasons, but rather because he couldn’t let himself stay home while other innocent soldiers fought and died for his freedom. Doss was willing to do everything the US Army threw his way except for one thing: kill. That’s right: Desmond Doss, a pacifist, enlisted in the Army. The main reason for this was because of his religious beliefs, taking God’s commandment of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” to heart while holding his pocket bible close to it as well. He doesn’t even do so much as lay a hand on someone in a violent way. Everyone around him opposed him, unsurprisingly, and his label as the first “conscientious objector” was looked at with prejudice and scorn. Despite the obstacles in his way, Doss prevailed and saved countless lives during the war. This movie focuses primarily on his heroic actions during the battle on Hacksaw Ridge, hence the title.
On the surface, the story of Desmond Doss is quite impressive and profound, and his heroic acts during World War II are nothing short of exceptional. There’s clearly a great biopic that could come from this material, but at first, I was unsure about that. The trailer for the movie made it seem more faith-based and cheesy than anything, which made me less interested than I wanted to be. When it started out, I thought that’s exactly what we were going to be getting. Once Andrew Garfield came on screen, though, things immediately began to pick up. And by pick up, I mean fly up in quality. The first 30-40 minutes of the movie focus on Doss’s home life, which includes his alcoholic father played extremely well by Hugo Weaving and a love interest in the form of local nurse Dorothy, played by Teresa Palmer. This section of the movie allows audiences to get to know and fall in love with Desmond. It’s in the scenes Garfield and Palmer share together that make the first act enjoyable to get through. Watching Desmond pursue Dorothy is so sweet and funny to watch, especially thanks to the contagious grin plastered on Garfield’s face during the scene. Their love story takes its time, and it feels very rewarding as things go along. It also helps that Garfield and Palmer have such great chemistry together, but the scenes are written and directed with expertise as well.
Considering that Desmond ended up enlisting, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Palmer isn’t in the movie for much longer after that. Something I have to give screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan credit for is not cutting back to what Desmond’s family and friends are up to back home every 20 minutes or so. In fact, those guys aren’t in the movie unless they’re needed to be when it directly involves Desmond and the problems he’s facing. Some may complain that the relationship between Desmond and those at home felt too dramatic and overly sentimental for their tastes. Personally, I felt this worked to the story’s advantage, especially considering both how Desmond is as a character and what he ends up facing once he initially hits the battlefield. Desmond does see gory violence before going to war, as well as the aftermath of those who have gone to fight for America and came back to tell their tales, but it’s still apparent that he has been sheltered from the truly horrific travesties war has to offer until he heads overseas. Even the scenes of Doss training and facing the prejudice held by his officers and fellow soldiers feel tame compared to how brutal the big battle scenes are.
Upon arriving at boot camp, Desmond does get some flack from some officers and fellow recruits, which is rather normal in the army. It’s when he refuses to pick up and use a rifle that the real abuse starts to take effect. Luke Bracey, best known for his work in films such as “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “The Best of Me,” and the remake of “Point Break,” plays Smitty, the primary soldier almost keen on getting a rise out of his Jesus-worshipping “coward” of a comrade. Again, this is a cliché seen time and time again that theoretically should feel tired and forced. Here, though, we get to see this guy go from deliberately harassing Desmond to slowly grow to respect and appreciate him for his commitment to his beliefs. There’s a scene they share in a foxhole later in the film that is very tender, sweet, and most of all, human, giving us the chance to humanize Smitty and feel for him when things don’t go as planned. Bracy hasn’t been in the best films thus far, so I can easily say this is the best thing he’s been in, as well as the best performance he’s given. Nothing award-worthy, but solid enough work to merit giving him more chances in other movies.
It might be hard to believe that a war movie can also be funny, but sure enough, this one is, thanks mostly to none other than Vince Vaughn. It’s hard to take Vaughn seriously considering the comedic background he has, and Gibson knew that when he cast him. Hell, the audience I saw this movie with started laughing the moment Vaughn showed up on screen. The immediate comparison I guarantee many people will make of Vaughn’s performance as Sergeant Howell is with Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” The first scene he’s in involves roasting many of the new recruits, and almost everything he says is hilarious. What I admire so much about the inclusion of Howell, aside from adding some humor to a rather grim setting, is that, like Smitty, we get to see him grow as a character and become more humanistic as the story goes on. He might not have given the best performance in the movie, per say, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t say that, unquestionably, Vaughn gave the most impressive performance in the movie and stole almost every scene he was in. If you ever wanted to see what an “inspired casting choice” looks like, then here you go.
Sam Worthington’s Captain Glover is the most restrained when it comes to giving Doss abuse, but he is the busiest and highest-ranking military official keen on getting him out of the army. He doesn’t do this because of any prejudicial views he has, but rather because he doesn’t think Doss is qualified enough to fight alongside his men. He tries to get Doss booted from boot camp (pun intended) because he doesn’t want to see this supposedly naive and weak kid waste any potential he may have in potentially being an easy target for the enemy to gun down. I’ve never disliked Worthington in other projects I’ve seen him in, and that does include the “Clash of the Titans” movies. If anything, I’d say he’s a rather under-appreciated and talented guy who doesn’t get nearly the credit or roles he deserves. While I wouldn’t say his performance was impressive, I will say that I admire Gibson’s choice for casting him. Worthington’s delivers admirable work in the film, long story short.
And now, let’s talk about Andrew Garfield’s performance as Desmond T. Doss. What else is there to be said about him, other than I thought Sony and Marvel screwed him out of playing Spider-Man in more movies? In their defense, though, if they didn’t boot him from playing the iconic web-slinger, then he might not have been able to take on this particular project. And had he not taken on the role of Desmond, then we might not have been blessed with what may be Garfield’s strongest performance yet. Throughout the story, from his romance with Teresa Palmer to his time in boot camp to his heroic work during the battle at the titular location, Garfield harnesses this constant feeling of innocence and naivety in his character, which makes him such an easy target for those around him. At the same time, though, there’s a sense of toughness and persistence that allows the audience to empathize with and cheer for when people try to put him down. I found it to be particularly impressive in how Garfield played Doss during the battle sequences. There’s a mixture of calmness, fear, and dedication that keep him doing what he has committed himself to do, and to see him do everything he does, particularly in the movie’s climax, is some of the most intense and poetically beautiful acts of heroism ever captured on film. Take that as an overstatement now if you want, especially if you think I’m praising Garfield because he showed up for a Q&A after the screening I attended for the film, but just wait until you see what this guy does and how many lives he ends up saving during this battle alone.
You might be wondering by now, especially if you’ve seen Gibson’s other directorial efforts, exactly how violent “Hacksaw Ridge” overall is. To be utterly frank, and considering how I haven’t seen the brutal violence present in “Passion,” this may very well be the most realistically brutal, gory, disgusting, and shockingly violent film I’ve ever seen. When some characters stand in front of poorly done green screen effects in the opening scenes, and some CGI fire effects are poorly added and animated into some sequences, I got a little worried about how the violence was going to look and get portrayed. Thank god that over half of it was done using practical effects because some of the imagery appearing on screen is downright shocking. While I never looked away or covered my eyes, I got the feeling around me of people both looking away and being amazed at how realistic certain things look.
I have to point something out: the MPAA hasn’t given the film a rating at the time of this review’s publication, but even so it’s apparent that this easily warrants an R rating, and the only reason for that is because of how violent it is. There isn’t a single use of the word “fuck” at any point throughout the movie, which may be surprising considering how people typically talk during the war. The most profane words used, if my memory serves me right, were “Jap” and “shit.” The sexual content in the film is very scarce and tame compared to other war flicks. The only moments involving any sexuality are as follows: someone shows off the cover of a nude magazine as a joke to his comrades, a man’s bare buttocks appearing on screen several times, (again for comedy) and an implied scene of a couple consummating for the first time as newlyweds.
Another movie I still have yet to see, and one I guarantee is going to come up amongst other people looking to compare this with something, is “Saving Private Ryan.” While I might not have seen the film in its entirety, (and before you comment saying anything about it, I’m planning on seeing it soon) I have watched the infamous “Omaha Beach” scene. Comparing the battle sequences showcased in “Hacksaw” to that iconic reenactment, this is easily much harder to watch, especially if you have a weak stomach. The amount of the violence in the film’s first half is quite scarce, with the exceptions being a shot of a man’s wounded artery spurting blood 15 minutes in, the implications of domestic abuse, and a brutal but bloodless act that takes place within the first 5 minutes. Once the pursuit on Hacksaw Ridge begins, though, some of the most horrific and graphic violent imagery ever filmed gets showcased as well. If you have even the slightest fear towards maggots and/or decaying bodies, it might be best to stay away from this, then.
The highest amount of praise I have to give this movie, along with the realistic battle scenes and makeup, has to be in the writing. I mentioned above with certain characters that they get to grow and get fleshed out as human beings enough for the audience to care about them, but something I have to commend Knight and Schenkkan for is how they portray religion and Desmond’s religious beliefs throughout the story. We live in an awful age of “faith-based” movies, thanks in particular to the exploitative, immoral, offensive, and biased views shared by people like Kirk Cameron, the Kendrick Brothers, and those over at Pure Flix Entertainment. In a day and age where these people along with other figures in the Christian community, try to shove their religious propaganda down the throats of audiences, many of their own consuming it like candy, it’s great to see two guys who don’t try to piggyback religious symbolism, motifs, etc. throughout. Desmond’s ways of practicing religion weren’t by preaching or trying to convert “non-believers” to his side, but rather as a way of being faithful to his God and do what he sincerely felt was the right thing to do. Not just as a Christian, but as a human being. He doesn’t just save his comrades on the battlefield; he also rescues wounded enemy soldiers. Desmond didn’t see color or race when he was bringing people to safety; he only saw what everyone around him on Hacksaw was: a wounded human being. He risked his life to save as many people as he could, and I can’t help but applaud these two writers for showing that so accurately and with such humanity and grace.
If “Hacksaw Ridge” isn’t on your radar now, I strongly recommend you getting it on there now. It’s well-acted, well-shot, well-written, relentlessly violent, and manages to balance emotions and genres enough to feel as organic as it could be. Say what you will about Mel Gibson as a person, but don’t let that affect whether or not you see this. Yes, he went on an Anti-Semitic rant and has said/done other controversial acts over the years. At the end of the day, though, his knowledge and understanding of what makes a coherent and entertaining movie is still there, and this is definitive proof that he’s still got it after all these years. My family raised me as a member of the Jewish religion, and because of that I never saw a lot of movies that involved Mel Gibson, the exception being “Chicken Run.” I know people who will not see something just because his name’s a part of it, and they don’t want to support someone who allegedly hates Jews. I understand where these people are coming from, but I believe something should receive credit based solely on the work done and not the people behind said work.
I write this review today speaking not as a Jew, but as a human being who judges films on objective levels, tries his best to give credit when credit’s due, and, most importantly, doesn’t hate any fellow human being regardless of their actions. In the case of “Hacksaw Ridge,” I’ve given it so much praise and love because I believe that’s exactly what it deserves. It has a couple of minor technical problems, as well as the unexplained whereabouts of one character after he “leaves” the story, but I’m able to look past those tiny problems because of how much everything else around them works. It doesn’t matter your religion, skin color, gender, sexual preference, or any other type of label that differentiates you from someone else. If you are a human being, and you want to see what it looks like to be a genuinely kind person, then I highly recommend seeing this film. If the story of someone using their faith to save lives of physically wounded soldiers, even if that means not carrying any weapon for defense into the line of duty and getting hated on because of that, sounds appealing at all, then “Hacksaw Ridge” is an absolute must-see. Don’t avoid this movie because of the director Mel Gibson’s questionable past; I implore you to go out of your way to see it as a way to honor and celebrate the memory of one of the bravest individuals to ever grace this world’s land and soil.