Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Love him or hate him, it can’t be said that Mel Gibson is a talentless hack behind the camera. He may be a bigoted asshole and an alcoholic, but the man is no slouch as a director, as he’s proven several times before with films like ‘Braveheart’ (1995), ‘The Passion of The Christ’ (2004), and ‘Apocalypto’ (2006). After a 10 year hiatus, only occasionally popping up in select film roles, he’s back with a gritty, new melodrama inspired by true events and people. Now I consider myself fairly well-versed in WW2 history and trivia, but the story of the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge, on the violently contested island of Okinawa in 1945 and in particular, the military legend that was Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, was lost on me. So on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I wandered on down to the local cinema to see if Gibson still had ‘it’. I’m relieved to report that…he does. He definitely does.
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ opens with ‘Desmond Doss’ as a child growing up in the southern United States in the years following World War 1. One day, while fighting with his brother, ‘Doss’ goes to far and nearly kills his sibling with an accidental brick to the head. The gravity of what could’ve happened, coupled with his devout religious upbringing, instill a sense of pacifism in the boy; a principal that stays with ‘Doss’ well into his teens and early 20’s. By this time, the world is engrossed in the struggle that was World War 2 and ‘Doss’ watches as his brother leaves to serve his country. Inspired by this, ‘Desmond’ volunteers to enlist, only with the stipulation that he not be required to carry a weapon. This almost instantly puts him at odds with his superiors and fellow soldiers, who fail to see his actions and choices as anything but cowardice. ‘Desmond’ refuses to surrender his principals and is eventually vindicated and allowed to pursue his desire to become a medic. As his position is finally accepted into the ranks of the US Army, his unit is sent to the island of Okinawa, to help in the final push toward Japan during the island-hopping campaign that led to the eventual dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s during the fierce battle for a small piece of cliff-side land that ‘Doss’ proves himself beyond all measure, when facing some grueling and gruesome action against the desperate and determined Japanese Army.
As a war film, this one easily ranks up there with films like ‘Hamburger Hill’ (1987), ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998), and ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001)…to name a few. From a technical stand-point alone, this film is a triumph for Gibson. That being said, for a film that spends half it’s 2 hour 20 minute run-time wallowing is some of the bloodiest, most barbaric war carnage you’ll ever see, there’s a lot of heart and conviction at it’s core. For all the death and destruction that ensues around ‘Desmond’ as he struggles to save lives on the battlefield, his beliefs and his belief in the difference that he can make, do not waver, and it was genuinely inspiring to see. One thing that Mel Gibson has proven with his past films is his ability to meld melodrama with realistic grit to give his audience a well-rounded cinematic experience…and ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is no different. Gritty settings and situations effortlessly seg-way into intense sequences of dramatic slow-motion and swelling music…drama upon drama. In less capable hands, it would probably lean too heavily in one direction or another, throwing the tone off-balance and reducing the material to a cheezy caricature of what is truly wants to be. That is NOT the case here. The narrative capably rides a very fine line between the two tones and just kinda…works. One element that lends to this is the film’s 2 Part structure. It’s VERY similar to another war classic from 1987, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’, in that there’s are 2 very distinct halves to the film. The first half establishes ‘Desmond’s life and his convictions, and how they all come to play into his time at boot camp while trying to stay true to his principals in the face of almost universal opposition. The second half concentrates on the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa and we see how he steps up to his duties as a medic in the midst of Hell-on-Earth.
First thing working in Gibson’s favor is his choice of cast. We get Andrew Garfield (‘The Amazing Spiderman’) as ‘Desmond Doss’. Garfield’s been a little hit n miss for me, but he definitely steps up to fill the heroic shoes of this celebrated soldier. We also get Sam Worthington (‘Avatar’) and Vince Vaughn (‘Swingers’) as two of ‘Doss’ commanding officers. Hugo Weaving (‘The Matrix’) is terrific as ‘Desmonds’ WW1 veteran / alcoholic father ‘Tom’ and Teresa Palmer (‘Triple 9’) is appealing as ‘Dorothy’, the love of ‘Desmond’s life and his ‘rock’ through it all. The rest of the supporting cast all muster up solid performances to help propel the story along and give it it’s ‘appropriate gravity’.
Secondly, the technical aspects behind elements like the intense and gory scenes of harsh combat that dominate the film’s second half are fantastically well-handled. There appears to have been a lot of practical stunts and ‘in camera’ effects used, and they really sell the idea of the fighting and the settings. This also applies to the intimidating depiction of the effects of war on the human body. Characters are wounded and die in horrifically realistic ways. ‘Desmond’s introduction to combat has him literally having to step over strewn body parts and viscera on the way to the combat zone. It doesn’t let up from there, as each skirmish that breaks out with the entrenched Japanese result in violent flurries of blood, mud, smoke and fire. Even though the main battle is over a small chunk of cliff-side real estate, the sequences feel large and epic.
Something else that feels ‘large and epic’ was the highly impressive sound design. Gunfire and explosions had some serious ‘Ooommph!’ to them, but were often effectively underscored by quiet scenes where we just had to watch and listen to the atmosphere that gently washed over the audience. Small, incidental atmospherics were just as effective as the gunfire and detonations, and I’d say this title will be an easy contender as a reference-level release, when it comes to it’s audio performance on Home Surround Systems. The music score by composer Rupert Gregson-Williams was also tonally spot-on, and was very rousing when it needed to be.
For a lower budget film, if you can call $45 000 000 ‘lower budget’, the cinematography is great. Lots of ‘large scope’ shots establishing locations and actions, while also keeping us grounded by putting us in with the troops at combat level as the battle rages on. Slick use of smoke kept the immediate battle feeling intimate and claustrophobic, while the sound design went a long way to paint the idea of a much larger fight happening around our core of characters. Bravo to Gibson and his crew.
If I had to dredge up a complaint, the only thing that comes to mind (after some digging) was that Andrew Garfield’s ‘southern’ accent struck me as funny a couple times, like he was somehow overdoing it, but then they showed scenes from an interview with the real Desmond Doss at the end and it would seem that Garfield was actually pretty close. I also found the casting of Vince Vaughn to be an odd choice and I half-expected some smart-ass quips or comments to emerge from time to time…but they never did. He played his drill sergeant character straight and by about the time the soldiers hit combat, I was sold on the character.
All in all, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is a damn fine and genuinely inspiring war film from a talented, if controversial, director. There’s a solid and necessary story / lesson at the heart of it, wrapped in some of the most gripping and violent WW2 carnage since HBO’s ‘The Pacific’. The 2 hour 20 minute run-time seemed to fly by and I could’ve handled another 20-30 minutes of this story, if Gibson had more to show us. Be warned, this is a film that takes the physical effects of combat VERY seriously, almost to a fetishistic degree, and isn’t afraid to show, in nauseating detail, what bullets and shrapnel do to human flesh. At times, it’s a disturbingly violent film and comes by it’s ‘R’ rating honestly. Not exactly a film for the squeamish, despite the uplifting core story. If you can handle that, and are a fan of war films, or history, or just a well-told drama…then this may be a film for you. Given much of the war-related spectacle, I would push for anyone interested in this title to give it a look on The Big Screen, but if you don’t…I still recommend it for a showing on Home Release. Mel Gibson…you may be a prejudice, alcoholic bully…but you’re also a talented director that I’d like to see more work from in the near future. THIS film just reinforces that.

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