By Brad Sun. To paraphrase Sin City‘s Dwight McCarthy, Mel Gibson isn’t crazy; he just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century. Luckily, the themes he’s most interested in exploring on film (love, honor, men being graphically tortured and killed) are more or less timeless. And it’s with this timeless, legendary sense of scope that he consistently seeks to imbue his subjects, be it the life and times of an iconic Guardian of Scotland or the literally mythic story of Christ’s death and resurrection.
In Hacksaw Ridge, the same majestically sweeping shots that inspired countless vacations to Braveheart‘s Scottish countryside are turned to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the story of Desmond T. Doss, whose heroics during WWII are a genuinely astounding true story of courage and conviction.
Unfortunately, the same mythic purity that has served Gibson in the past doesn’t hold up quite as well when not paired with ancient civilizations, beautiful princesses, and big ass swords. We don’t really know how believable William Wallace’s idyllic onscreen courtship was to the realities of medieval Scotland, nor do we care. But 1940s Virginia is too familiar a time and place to not make us roll our eyes at the syrupy sweet innocence of Doss’ romance to an angelic nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). Portrayed by Andrew Garfield as a pure-hearted simpleton, there’s (surely unintentional) shades of Forrest Gump in his dorky, perpetually grinning Doss. Yet even Forrest Gump laced its nostalgia-soaked hero’s journey with spikes of self-awareness and subversion.
This is where Gibson’s old school sensibility fails him. The front half of this film is loaded with clichés and contrived biopic shorthand that viewers will see coming from miles away. And while this rare commitment to unapologetic sincerity is laudable, Hacksaw Ridge frequently borders on self-parody, bringing to mind all-too accurate spoofs like The Spoils of Babylon and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, cartoonish Southern accents and all.
Things get only marginally better when Dawes heads to boot camp under the stern command of Vince Vaughn’s drill sergeant with, yes, a heart of gold. Only Hugo Weaving, as Dawes’ alcoholic father (also with a heart of gold, naturally) manages to truly rise above the tepid writing to deliver an impassioned and vulnerable performance. But all of this changes when the film finally makes its way to the treacherous cliff for which it’s named.
As blood trickles down the steep ridge and onto the faces of the frightened soldiers, you can almost feel the Mad Mel of Apocalypto and The Passion springing to life. By the time they make their way over the top and we get our first view of the hellish setting of the movie’s second half, Hacksaw Ridge has fully transitioned from saccharine Christian film to gorehound horror flick.
Rotting corpses, screams of terror, even a few jump scares — Gibson pulls out all the stops to bring the sheer madness of war to visceral life. While comparisons to Saving Private Ryan are tempting, Spielberg’s iconic opening sequence was all about gritty realism and masterfully controlled chaos. Gibson is doing something different here. His shocking imagery may be just as emotionally resonant (and sure, there’s the occasional use of shaky cam), but cinema vérité this is not. Look beyond the burning bodies and sickening showers of meat and blood, and you’ll see the same soaring camera and painterly compositions that transformed Lynchburg, Virginia into an unspoiled Eden earlier in the film. In Hacksaw Ridge, war is Hell. It’s also beautiful. It’s also salvation.
Gibson has long explored the connections between horror, pain, and spirituality. This is of course most explicit in The Passion of the Christ, where Jesus of Nazareth’s gauntlet of suffering through the streets of a demon-infested Jerusalem is chronicled in excruciating detail. But even when the salvation of mankind isn’t literally at stake, Gibson’s protagonists — from the publicly disemboweled William Wallace to the relentlessly pursued warrior Jaguar Paw — consistently find enlightenment and triumph through persecution, physical torment, and plenty of blood and gore.
To put it simply, Mel Gibson’s films are the cinematic equivalent of a self-flagellating monk. But even if you don’t buy into his archaic brand of Catholic penance, the relentless conviction and undeniable zeal of his vision can often be transcendent. At times, Hacksaw Ridge comes close to these sublime heights, but is all too often bogged down in paint-by-numbers tropes and uninspired flag waving propaganda. This is, relatively speaking, a reined-in Gibson, and the film is poorer for it. Even still, the sheer force and downright strangeness of his personality spills through at the most crucial moments, making Hacksaw Ridge a fascinating but flawed return for the devoutly daffy director.
Directed by Mel Gibson.
Produced by Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic, Brian Oliver, David Permut, and Tyler Thompson.
Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, and Hugo Weaving.
Rated R because you’ve seen ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and use your imagination.
6.5 out of 10