After a long, ten-year stint in filmmaker jail, Mel Gibson has returned with Hacksaw Ridge: a gruesomely violent WWII biopic about Desmond Doss, a medic and devout Seventh Day Adventist, who saved the lives of over 75 soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa without killing a single enemy combatant. Hacksaw Ridge features Gibson’s typical heavy-handed religious symbolism to great effect here, and serves as an unnerving contrast to the graphic violence in the film’s third act.
As Doss, Andrew Garfield leads a cast of competent character actors (including The Matrix’s Hugo Weaving) and unlikely dramatic turns for others (Vince Vaughn as a drill sergeant). If Doss himself carried 75 wounded soldiers on his back in the course of one night, then Garfield reliably holds the film together on his shoulders. The bucolic first act follows Doss in his Virginia home as he meets the love of his life (Teresa Palmer). He enlists in the war, much to the dismay of his father (Weaving), a veteran of the Great War. In the second act, Doss is psychologically and physically tormented by both the battalion commanders and his fellow cadets due to his conscientious objector status. The third act is where Gibson’s traditional synthesis of fierce brutality and religious symbolism and overtures comes into play.
A gentler film would have downplayed the gruesomeness of the battle scenes, weakening the effect of the film. The subject of Hacksaw Ridge is a pacifist, but the film is certainly not. Given its comparatively docile first two acts, it would be easy to dismiss Gibson’s work as an inane Christian Right film. And while Hacksaw Ridge articulates fairly conservative religious views, its refusal to self-censor and its complicated characterization of Doss as something of a paradox (a pacifist soldier) makes it stand-out among the God’s Not Deads and the Left Behinds of the world (not to mention its stellar cast and superior production values).
Hacksaw Ridge is a fine return for a filmmaker who has necessarily provoked controversy. With a strong cast and sense of purpose, Hacksaw Ridge is a testament to Mel Gibson’s ability to balance an aggressive directorial style with a compassionate edge.
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Mark Barber: @WorstCinephile