The film opens with grim imagery, soldiers with their faces blown off, engulfed in flames, before jumping back in time sixteen years to tell the tale of real-life pacifist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). Growing up in podunk Virginia Desmond is a high spirited boy who almost kills his brother during a play fight spun out of control. When his mother (Rachel Griffiths) tells him the most egregious sin of all is the taking of another person’s life, he allows the potent words to sink in and take root.
Later, after a whirlwind romance of the, “Today I met the girl I’m going to marry,” type he enlists in the army, despite the protests of his WWI vet father (Hugo Weaving and his fiancée (Teresa Palmer). A conscientious objector, Desmond refuses any kind of weapons training, insisting instead to go into battle as a medic. In boot camp his fellow cadets treat him like a pariah while his superiors (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) threaten him with a court martial. “I’m not off up above,” he says pointing to his head. “I just believe what I believe.”
“Hacksaw Ridge” is the kind of movie that presents the main character as an underdog, but you know by the end of the film someone will say, “That crazy SOB was the bravest man I ever met,” or words to the effect. And so it goes. On Hacksaw Ridge, an impossibly tall cliff on the Japanese island of Okinawa, his mettle is tested when his platoon is attacked and overwhelmed. Without firing a shot, or even touching a gun, Desmond dodges death in the form of Japanese soldiers, bullets and grenades to bring aid to his colleagues.
This is a morality tale about a man whose noble intentions are misunderstood by everyone. Based on real events, it nonetheless has the feel of Hollywood fiction. Perhaps it’s because of our cynical times, but stories of the indomitable spirit seem to take on a corny edge no matter how much gruesome stuff—legs turn in the hamburger meat, rats eating corpses—the director uses to paint the screen.
That may be unfair, but there is an undeniable aw-shucks vibe that permeates the air. Gibson clearly respects the moral high ground his main character takes, but allows Garfield to play Doss as a hokey cliché, with one hand on the bible and a goofy grin plastered on his face. It’s amiable enough work but when the “hellfire of combat” kicks in he tends to get lost amid the action.
And there is a lot of action. By the time the movie shifts location to the titular warzone Gibson goes full tilt with skilfully shot, hardcore battle scenes. For a film about pacifism he doesn’t hold back, bringing his usual subtlety (think “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ” or “Apocalypto”) to scenes of dismemberment and even a glimpse of ritual Seppuku. It’s wild and woolly and often very effective. A slow speed chase sequence in one of the cliff’s tunnels has tension and a couple of good jump scares. It’s solid filmmaking, if just a little safe. There’s nothing here as oddball or challenging as the use of arcane languages in his last two films or “Passion’s” female Satan. Instead he’s made a conventional, if somewhat gory inspirational biopic that suggests, come for the old time religion, stay for the blood and guts.
It’s hard to separate Mel Gibson from his films. “Hacksaw Ridge,” despite its lack of his usual eccentric flourishes, still feels like it could only be made by a man torn between deeply held faith and a wild side that sometimes runs free.