In war, fathers bury their sons: Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Mel Gibson indulges in his biggest obsessions as a filmmaker and creates a magnificent film that couldn’t have been made by anyone else

Hacksaw Ridge


Di­rect­ed by Mel Gib­son. Writ­ten by An­drew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Star­ring An­drew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Wor­thing­ton, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weav­ing, Tere­sa Palmer, Ryan Corr, Rachel Grif­fiths, Richard Rox­burgh, Luke Pe­gler, Richard Py­ros, Ben Min­gay, Fi­rass Di­rani, Damien Thom­lin­son, Matt Nable, Robert Mor­gan and Nathaniel Bu­zolic.

When­ev­er I see any film, I try nev­er to keep ex­pec­ta­tions. As every­one should know by now, they are the num­ber one cause for dis­ap­point­ment and can lead us to be pret­ty un­fair to great movies, judg­ing them by their cov­er. When I went to see Mel Gibson’s war epic Hack­saw Ridge, I had noth­ing to ex­pect nor did I as­sume (like some peo­ple I know) that it would be a jin­go­is­tic piece made ex­clu­sive­ly to praise the brav­ery of Amer­i­can sol­diers and he­roes (de­spite my vivid mem­o­ry of Clint Eastwood’s Amer­i­can Sniper). But the film sur­prised me and sim­ply be­cause it has so much that could go wrong in the hands of an in­com­pe­tent di­rec­tor that I hon­est­ly can­not be­lieve how well it works — or how it moved me be­yond words.

What im­pressed me even more in Hack­saw Ridge, how­ev­er, lies on a per­son­al lev­el. I re­al­ly don’t re­mem­ber hav­ing seen a film that chal­lenged my cyn­i­cism in such an overt way in a long time. As tears gushed down my face and I stood there stunned by Gibson’s re­fusal not to give in to easy melo­dra­ma, I was tak­en aback by how his real-life pro­tag­o­nist was ca­pa­ble of such in­cred­i­ble self­less­ness amid hor­ri­ble cir­cum­stances. In oth­er words, it is as if I had al­most for­got­ten that hu­man be­ings were ca­pa­ble of so much good and kind­ness, and it felt like a well-de­served slap across my face to be proven wrong like this.

Based on an in­spir­ing true sto­ry, Hack­saw Ridge be­gins like a typ­i­cal Mel Gib­son movie, full of vi­o­lent, graph­ic im­ages of sol­diers burnt alive, blown apart and burst into pieces in a bloody war. We see cor­po­ral Desmond Doss (An­drew Garfield) be­ing car­ried away on a stretch­er, and the film jumps 17 years back in time to fol­low his life since he was a boy grow­ing up near the Blue Ridge Moun­tains in Lynch­burg, Vir­ginia. That is when an in­ci­dent re­in­forces Doss’ Chris­t­ian be­lief that “thou shall not kill,” and 15 years lat­er, at the out­break of WWII, he en­lists in the army to serve as a medic but re­fus­ing to use any weapon — and when Doss’ unit is even­tu­al­ly de­ployed to the Bat­tle of Ok­i­nawa, he be­comes a true hero with­out fir­ing a sin­gle shot.

Con­sid­er how many peo­ple will read “Chris­t­ian be­lief” and “hero” in the pre­vi­ous para­graph and roll their eyes. Af­ter Gibson’s pros­e­ly­tiz­ing blood­bath The Pas­sion of the Christ (2004), I quite un­der­stand that, and his re­li­gios­i­ty is ac­tu­al­ly also ev­i­dent here (de­spite his be­ing a hard­core Catholic and Doss a Sev­enth-day Ad­ven­tist). Gib­son makes a film about mir­a­cles, but while I’m not re­li­gious at all, I couldn’t help be­ing moved by the sight of a man as­cend­ing to­wards the sky as if to meet his god. Imag­ine what a dis­as­ter this could have been if made by some­one like Michael Bay. But Gib­son is a crazy ge­nius who doesn’t let any of his char­ac­ters be­come one-di­men­sion­al (not even Doss’ al­co­holic fa­ther, which would have been so easy).

An­oth­er con­stant in his films has al­most al­ways been the graph­ic amount of vi­o­lence. In Hack­saw Ridge, it is no dif­fer­ent. Gib­son evokes the hor­ror and full in­san­i­ty of war by show­ing us blown-out guts, sev­ered parts of corpses, de­cap­i­tat­ed heads full of worms, rats de­vour­ing torn-out dead bod­ies and even a gut-wrench­ing mo­ment when two en­e­my sol­diers scream hys­ter­i­cal­ly at each oth­er with a grenade about to ex­plode be­tween them. All that is in­ten­si­fied by an as­ton­ish­ing sound de­sign (and mix­ing) that puts us right there in the bat­tle­field as bul­lets whizz around us and deaf­en­ing ex­plo­sions make us feel like in the mid­dle of hell — and this proves es­sen­tial as Doss’ ac­tions be­come tense and mov­ing for us in the same pro­por­tion.

Be­ing a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor who re­fus­es to bear arms and yet is de­ter­mined to save peo­ple as his way to “serve,” Doss is played by An­drew Garfield as a brave young man who would rather miss his own wed­ding and be thrown into jail be­fore be­tray­ing his strong prin­ci­ples. Garfield nails it with a most won­der­ful bal­ance be­tween in­no­cence, con­vic­tion, kind­ness (even to an en­e­my sol­dier) and frus­tra­tion when not able to save some­one. His per­for­mance is a les­son in sub­tle­ty, from a slight tremor on his low­er lip at one mo­ment to the silent re­silience he dis­plays in the face of bul­ly­ing — and it is al­most im­pos­si­ble not to love him when he tells a sol­dier in need that he is not go­ing any­where or when he begs God to help him save one more.

Garfield’s chem­istry with his co-star Tere­sa Palmer, who plays Doss’ girl­friend Dorothy Schutte and looks so much like Kris­ten Stew­art, is also im­por­tant to es­tab­lish our con­nec­tion with their char­ac­ters while Hugo Weav­ing is fan­tas­tic as Doss’ war vet­er­an fa­ther who hates him­self and drowns his sor­rows in booze. The cast­ing, by the way, is so good that even the two boys who play Doss and his broth­er in the 1920s look a lot like their old­er ver­sions. When the ac­tion moves to Fort Jack­son, it is Vince Vaughn who steals the show as Sgt. How­ell and brings to mind R. Lee Ermey’s char­ac­ter in Full Met­al Jack­et (1987), in­vent­ing hi­lar­i­ous nick­names for the sol­diers, call­ing some­one a “naked de­gen­er­ate” and ask­ing him if he has “ever looked into a goat’s eyes.”

And if Sam Wor­thing­ton de­liv­ers a sol­id per­for­mance, go­ing from a cyn­i­cal man who states that “the Unit­ed States Army does not make mis­takes” to fi­nal­ly see­ing Doss in a com­plete­ly new light, Luke Bracey has the chance to shape the bul­ly Smit­ty Ryk­er as a sur­pris­ing­ly three-di­men­sion­al char­ac­ter — and the con­ver­sa­tion he has with Doss in a fox­hole dur­ing the night is my per­son­al fa­vorite mo­ment in the en­tire film, show­ing two very dif­fer­ent men who start to un­der­stand each oth­er.

And Hack­saw Ridge is not only im­pres­sive when we see, for in­stance, the strik­ing sight of sol­diers climb­ing up a high wall but also in its small­er de­tails, like the ex­quis­ite pro­duc­tion de­sign at the gar­ri­son us­ing shades of green to il­lus­trate the spir­it of uni­ty and broth­er­hood among the sol­diers. There is so much sen­si­bil­i­ty in this mag­nif­i­cent film that it may be hard to be­lieve that it was made by the same man who got him­self in­volved in so much con­tro­ver­sy in the past years. But Gib­son is a crazy ge­nius.

March 8, 2017


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