Hacksaw Ridge Review: Contradicting Forms of Heroism

Photo Credit:http://www.ew.com/article/2016/07/28/hacksaw-ridge-trailer-andrew-garfield-mel-gibson

The great contradiction of Mel Gibson’s true, peace-loving war film is the grotesque violence he unleashes in the film’s several viscerally difficult battle scenes. Hacksaw Ridge has some of most arrestingly filmed war scenes of any film since Saving Private Ryan. Gibson knows how to pace his action. He knows when to push his audience. He knows when to let up. He even knows how to make slow motion impactful. For his first film in a decade, he reminds us of his sheer talent in the director’s chair.

The contradicting juxtaposition of peace and gore was present in The Passion of the Christ as well, ultimately damning the film into controversy rather than the work of art it aspired to be. Hacksaw Ridge will hardly be as controversial, but the problem here remains the same.

Granted, the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a contradiction in and of itself. A soldier who refuses to touch a rifle? It’s the kind of true story that, had Hollywood made it up, would have never been able to suspend our disbelief. But there he was, the only fighting in his life being between he and his traditionalist sergeants. The lead up to the brutal Battle of Okinawa details Doss’ family life and time at boot camp, treating it as a big warm tale of American heroism. We meet his abusive, alcoholic, World War I veteran father (Hugo Weaving), who instills a resistance to violence in his son by means of violence. His mother’s (Rachel Griffiths) methods are that of faith. Doss keeps a Bible on him throughout the whole film, putting our protagonist on a pillar of optimism that only Hollywood could actually conjure. But Gibson’s larger than life tone aspires to inspire, not be dissected for which moments are actually factual.

That changes when we move to Okinawa, where explosions blow body parts across the screen and characters you’ve grown to like are horrifically slaughtered in a battle that no one really wins. The stark realism is a splash of cold water after the sunny first half, taking Doss’ principles and putting them to the most extreme test. But Gibson’s use of violence here is so all-encompassing that it’s all we begin to see, which is of course true to life of the people who actually fought in this battle. Still, there are dramatic flourishes that betray what these scenes and the film’s message overall are trying to do. The nature of war washes over the scene, making these moments relatively easy to forgive, but they do stand out.

As the tone occasionally stumbles, the actors in this diversely talented cast also have a bit of a give and take. Some roles just fall flat, like Vince Vaughn’s terrible R. Lee Ermey impersonation as Doss’ drill sergeant. But then there’s Weaving, playing the most complicated character in the film with deep-rooted emotion that he pulls back layer by layer. As for our lead, Garfield is clearly gunning for an Oscar here, but he makes a pretty damn good case for himself. His Doss is warm and likable, but also left enough of center to increase the possibility that the audience actually thinks he’s crazy. Garfield is a huge reason that Gibson’s contradictions don’t put the film at war with itself.

Still, there are some faults here that knock this comeback feature down a peg from Gibson’s best films, Braveheart and the seemingly forgotten Apocalypto. Despite them, Hacksaw Ridge comes together fairly well and shows us that a face of former Hollywood glory is still an artist worth watching. Whether audiences have forgiven Gibson yet is up to them, but for those that have, there’s a pretty decent war film out there for them. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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