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Review: Hacksaw Ridge
Redbrick Film's Patrick Box reviews Mel Gibson's Oscar nominated return to the director's chair, Hacksaw Ridge
Now Mel Gibson may be a controversial figure to say the least, but his merit as a director cannot be ignored or dismissed. Hacksaw Ridge is the first film in ten years which he has served as director on. Only his fourth film behind the camera, it has already become his best received, generating Oscar nominations and aiding in the thawing of his own Hollywood blacklisting. Whilst occasionally over the top, and sporting a soapy first act, Hacksaw Ridge is a visual tour-de-force. In a recent interview, actor Mark Rylance stated that every great director has a war film in their repertoire; Gibson’s attempt at the genre is a worthy addition.
“Whilst occasionally over the top, and sporting a soapy first act, Hacksaw Ridge is a visual tour-de-force
Based on the true story of Desmond T. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), who’s actions as a medic during World War II, at the Battle of Okinawa , earned him the medal of honour. We first meet him in his hometown in Lynchburg, Virginia as he falls in love with local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). Becoming interested in medicine through his relationship with her, he decides to enlist in the Army and serve as a combat medic to the dismay of his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of WWI. However upon arriving at Boot Camp, Doss’ pacifism (born out of his devout Christianity), and refusal to carry a weapon causes him to be branded a coward by his fellow recruits and earns him the ire of his superiors Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). Despite their efforts to dismiss him from service, Doss goes on to serve in combat where his miraculous actions on the titular battlefield saves the lives of over 75 wounded soldiers.
It’s a good old patriotic tale about a real American hero, and is effectively performed by its cast although some performances are better than others. Teresa Palmer as Dorothy is effortlessly angelic if a little under-utilised. Sam Worthington however battles through an American accent that, try as he might, still reverts to his native Australian. His performance as Captain Glover is passable (if a little wooden), but I couldn’t help thinking that an actor of a higher calibre might have done more with the part, especially during the film’s first-half when explaining his not-altogether-unreasonable reservations over allowing Doss to serve. However, a pleasant surprise was Vince Vaughn’s performance as Howell. Introduced as a motor-mouth drill sergeant, his verbal put-downs are highly amusing and he manages to shade his antagonism towards Doss with a measure of compassion that later turns to respect. Luke Bracey as fellow recruit and initial rival Smitty Riker was also a welcome presence. Handsome, aryan, and well-toned, you can’t help thinking that Captain America has wondered into the wrong movie. In appearance and attitude he is the exact opposite of Doss, yet his bravado is tempered by an effective if rote backstory. His violent super-heroics on the battlefield almost threaten to stretch the bounds of credulity but Gibson knowingly undercuts his exploits before this happens, as he is forced to rely on Doss for help.
“It’s a good old patriotic tale about a real American hero, and is effectively performed by its cast
The centre of Hacksaw Ridge, though is Andrew Garfield’s Private Doss, an Oscar-nominated performance that I must admit I’m in two minds about. On the one hand, Doss comes across as almost irksomely earnest. You just wish he’d wipe that stupid grin off his face and gain some memorable character traits. His southern charm had me rolling my eyes during the first twenty minutes, despite a brutal childhood flashback that elaborates on his evangelicalism. Yet halfway through there is a turning point that illuminates what Gibson is doing with the character. Once the bullets start flying and Doss’ actions are allowed to speak for themselves, we see that his faith and incorruptibility is what made him so miraculous. In a welcome inversion of the genre, Doss refuses to let his good will and innocence be corrupted by combat, dogmatically clinging to his ideals. Here, Garfield’s performance is comparable to his turn in Scorsese’s recent Silence. He is grappling with less complicated material, but emerges as a more confident performer because of it. It is not surprising that of the two movies, this is the once that earned him a nomination. Yet Garfield’s performance is also representative of a slight tonal problem in the film. The initial first third, set in Virginia, that deals with Doss’ romance feels very melodramatic, more like a costume-drama than a war film. The small town community, complete with magically mosquito-free forests and hiking trails, is positively idyllic. Only Tom Doss’s raging alcoholism reminds you that it hasn’t fallen out of a storybook. Only once the film begins to transition and take on more war-like trappings is it clear that Gibson has done this on purpose: he contrasts the soapy idyllic nature of home-life with scenes of combat as grizzly as anything seen in Saving Private Ryan, and sure to impress fans of HBOs miniseries The Pacific.
“Once we enter this second-half Gibson emerges as the true star of the show
Once we enter this second-half Gibson emerges as the true star of the show. The battleground of Hacksaw Ridge is apocalyptic, shrouded in volcanic fog and littered with the fragmented remains of the dead and dying. When the violence comes it hits hard. Bullets cut men in half, flamethrowers cook men alive, and kamikaze soldiers engage in brutal hand-to-hand with American GIs. Gibson orchestrates it all with breath-taking precision and operatic slow-motion, resulting in some genuinely beautiful shots, including a Thompson submachine gun being viewed from above as it mows down men, the opposing forces crashing together like two furious tidal waves. Doss offers us a focal point amid the carnage as he saves life after life refusing to give up on anyone. His later actions behind enemy lines are truly suspenseful and had me, to use a cliché, on the edge of my seat even though I knew what the outcome would be. Maybe only twice does Gibson overplay his hand and slip into melodrama: when the returning Doss is greeted like a messiah by his comrades, and a slow-motion shot of a post-combat shower. However, the rest of these sequences are so viscerally spectacular that it overcomes not only these hurdles but all the reservations generated by the film’s first half. Gibson has earned himself that nomination and I expect we won’t be waiting ten years to watch his next directorial effort.
Verdict: Despite a soapy first half, and some minor issues in the performances, Hacksaw Ridge emerges as an expertly directed depiction of the horrors of combat and the miracles that can be performed by someone who refuses to compromise their humanity.