1 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge review

Nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, Hacksaw Ridge isn't just a declaration that Mel Gibson is back in Hollywood's good books. It may be his first directorial effort in a decade, but it's clear that the time he's been away hasn't changed him - not only is Hacksaw Ridge a well-made film, but his choice to revisit themes that he's more than familiar with also serves as a notice that he's still very much Mel Gibson, with all that entails.

Set predominantly during the Second World War, Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Private Desmond Doss, a combat medic who refused to kill or even hold a gun due to his beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist. Despite that, he still managed to save the lives of 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa, becoming the first conscientious objector (or conscientious cooperator, as Doss puts it) to receive the Medal of Honor.

It's a film of three distinct sections, one showing us Desmond's life before the war, one showing us the hardships he went through thanks to his status as a conscientious objector during training, and one showing us what Desmond did to earn the Medal of Honor - and in truth it's easy to see which parts of the film that director Mel Gibson was actually interested in. The first section, which introduces us to Desmond, his family and his future wife, is so mundane and by-the-numbers that it easily could have been filmed in its entirety by the second unit - it's only when Desmond makes his way to Fort Jackson for training that Hacksaw Ridge starts to come to life, coinciding neatly with when the actual story starts in earnest.

And by-and-large, Hacksaw Ridge becomes difficult to fault from this point on, at least from a more technical perspective. Gibson's direction is assured and capable throughout, particularly during the films battle scenes - the sequence that sees Desmond and the rest of his company make their way onto the smoke-filled battlefield for the first time is haunting, and Gibson is able to wring every drop of tension out of the build-up to when the shooting starts. When it does, Hacksaw Ridge isn't afraid of showing us the brutality of war - graphic, bloody shots of dismembered limbs, corpses and disturbing injuries litter these battle scenes, standing in stark contrast to the gentleness of the preceding sections and making them more effective, more evocative in the process. One has to wonder why Gibson hasn't directed a horror film yet - there is no doubt in my mind that his ability to build tension and his cinematic blood-lust would make him a natural fit for the genre.

On top of that, Andrew Garfield continues to surprise by giving a really good performance as Desmond Doss, portraying the character's innate sense of goodness in a way that although cheesy somehow works in the context of the film, and Hugo Weaving imbues Desmond's PTSD-ridden father with all the gravitas, anger and vulnerability he can muster, creating a fairly compelling character out of one that could easily have been paper thin in the hands of someone else. Hell, even Sam Worthington gives an interesting performance here - Gibson knows how to get the very best out of his actors, that's for sure, and the result is that you care more about these characters than the script might have indicated.

But this impressive sense of craft is ultimately wasted in service of a film that is overly sentimental and far too simplistic for a modern war movie, lacking the nuance and depth that this material could have easily accommodated. Hacksaw Ridge has no interest in exploring the contradictions of Desmond Doss, a man so averse to violence that he can't even hold a gun but is more than willing to take an active part in the war, nor does it have any interest in examining the complicated relationship between faith, patriotism and war - and that's a shame, especially when the story of Desmond Doss could have touched upon some very relevant ideas with the right man behind the camera. It's here that Gibson's sensibilities begin to shine through in a bad way, resulting in a movie that feels limited by its jingoism in all the ways you might assume a Mel Gibson movie would be.

Add to that a downright disgusting view of the Japanese, here portrayed more as a horde of inhumane, murderous monsters than actual people, and Hacksaw Ridge ends up feeling almost like propaganda in comparison to other modern (and worryingly, even not-so-modern) war films, a flaw that ultimately ends up holding it back from really earning that Best Picture nomination. The fact that Hacksaw Ridge is an undeniably well-made movie will be enough for some - but its failings on a deeper level stop it from being the truly great film that I believe it could have been.

4 stars

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