2016, R, 131 min. Directed by Mel Gibson. Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 4, 2016
Mel Gibson is out of movie jail. Ten years after directing Apocalypto, which was completed before a series of social disgraces were played out in public and limited Gibson’s employment opportunities over the next decade, he is back helming a movie. And it’s none too soon, because Gibson can be a remarkably vivid storyteller, both in his dynamism as an actor and visual approach as a director. As a movie about the power of faith and the rigors of battle (see also Gibson’s work in Gallipoli, Mad Max, We Were Soldiers, Braveheart, The Patriot, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto), Hacksaw Ridge plays to Gibson’s established strengths, making it a perfect comeback vehicle. This movie about the World War II hero Desmond T. Doss, a medic and the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, is a versatile effort, combining tasteful old-school Hollywood storytelling in the first half with a second half dedicated to a grunts’-eye perspective of the hideousness of war. Hacksaw Ridge (with a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan) is a Mel Gibson film through and through.
You’ll be forgiven during the first hour of Hacksaw Ridge if you wonder whether someone has slipped in a reel from Sergeant York, Howard Hawks’ 1941 war drama about the real-life pacifist sharpshooter Alvin C. York. So conventionally is the story of Doss (Garfield) told up until that point that it wouldn’t seem the least bit modern or foreign to an Old Master like Hawks or John Ford. We witness a few scenes from Doss’ childhood outside Lynchburg, Va., and his modest, rural upbringing near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains (not unlike York’s Tennessee background). There are also scenes of the gangly and naive young man’s courtship of a local nurse, Dorothy Schutte (Palmer), and the difficulties of his parents’ marriage, haunted as it is by the alcoholism and mental instability of his father (Weaving) after his service in World War I. Raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, Doss holds seemingly conflicting views of the war: It is a just cause that Americans need to fight (especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor), and he wants to join the fray but without touching a gun. Doss’ recruiting office must have been hard up that day because he was accepted with those conditions in place, only to be rejected during boot camp by his sergeant (Vaughn) and captain (Worthington), not to mention his fellow recruits. Imprisonment and the threat of a court-martial ensue before the Army relents and decides that it’s okay with them if Doss wants to run into battle with nothing but bandages and morphine injections.
The second hour of Hacksaw Ridge is devoted to the hell of war, a glimpse of which is teased during the film’s opening sequence. This is war of the grittiest, R-rated sort, detailing the American assault on Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific. From the truckloads of dead bodies returning from the front to the tactical determination it took for troops to climb up a steep escarpment via cargo net, the mud and spilled guts that sloshed with every step and the ferocity of the enemy’s resolve, Hacksaw Ridge never stints on the face-to-face horror of slaughter. Amid the madness, Doss runs into the battlefield, armed with his faith and a prayer: “Lord, help me get one more.” In all, it is said that he rescued 75 men. Moreover, his commanders and companions witnessed his bravery and valor in action, eliciting apologies from several of his previous tormentors. (One has to wonder if the inclusion of these apologies holds special resonance for the Mel Gibson comeback story.)
Garfield is note-perfect as the dichotomous Desmond Doss, a conscientious “cooperator” instead of objector, as he would frequently say. The conflicts raised by the character do not dissipate easily, nor does the memory of his selfless acts of heroism. Hacksaw Ridge is drenched in the blood of the fallen and the mud forever caked on the boots of those who survived to tell the tale. It’s the closest thing to feeling as though you’ve marched a mile in those shoes.