It’s very quaint to refer to Hacksaw Ridge as a film of warring sensibilities, but no truer assessment exists. At once, it is the story of a very specific man’s life and a blistering battlefront saga in close-up. The hastened opening act feels like something of a period piece soap opera, while the final two acts are more humane, the fact-based story of heroism in the face of persecution. It’s stilted in its everyday over-emotion, yet soaring in its humanist hero worship.
It also happens to be the most violent movie ever made about the pursuit of non-violence, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone aware that Mel Gibson is the film’s director. Ever the patron saint of cinematic flagellation, Gibson delivers what amounts to an auteurist distillation of the graphically bloody war saga. The film is elegantly composed, increasingly riveting…and quite disturbing in its brutality. This is Mel’s way, obviously – caught in a spiraling conundrum of persecution vs. infliction, conveying inner torment through visual splendor. And yet something in this particular story, about this particular character, almost unwittingly forces the director to embrace the power of peace even within the chaos of war.
Hacksaw Ridge plays directly into Gibson’s almost contradictory filmmaking voice, since it is the true story of Desmond Doss, the first Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Doss was demonstrably and staunchly anti-violence, yet there he stood, in the midst of the unconscionably violent hell of war, volunteering to serve his country with an aim of saving life as opposed to taking life. It’s a uniquely powerful tale for Gibson in particular to take on, since it forces the audience’s perspective – as well as the filmmaker’s – to align with Doss’. If our hero believes violence is destructive and war is madness, then that is what the film must depict. It permits Gibson to still explore violence but compels him out of his more indulgent proclivities. So Desmond Doss is a hero on multiple fronts.
Andrew Garfield plays Doss with utmost earnestness, so aww-shucksy that it almost feels wooden, until you realize that’s more an effect of the environment Garfield has to work within. Hacksaw Ridge is sort of Mel Gibson’s version of a latter-day Eastwood movie, wherein the broad technical scope is gorgeous, but human intimacy is stilted to the point of distraction. The screenplay, by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, knows the context of Doss’ rejection of violence is crucial but also wants to preserve time for epic battle sequences, so the narrative rockets through the character’s life story in about 30 minutes, enough to cover an episodic TV-level of detail. The WWII-era signposts are ever-present, set against a backdrop of Little House wholesomeness, but with overwrought darkness lurking just beneath the surface. Hugo Weaving is this portion’s chief casualty, playing Doss’ war veteran, hard-drinking, hair-trigger father in a performance that is doused in equal parts soap and syrup by the filmmakers, who seem more at home exploring the human condition on the battlefield.
But oh what a battlefield it is, portrayed in one masterfully rendered sequence after the next, a combination of harrowing and heroic. After suffering the relentless bullying of his Army unit and fighting the threat of formal military discharge over his refusal to carry a weapon, Doss serves on the front line as a medic in the Battle of Okinawa. But “medic” is quite a limited description of his actions, since he actively patrols the battlefield, seeking out as many wounded soldiers as he possibly can aiding in their safety by whatever means necessary, whether that constitutes dragging or carrying for yards, all while dodging enemy fire. He’s a literal savior, one whose bravery is unfounded and whose ultimate success is jaw-dropping.
Despite the somewhat concerning reality that Gibson is more at ease in depictions of violence than human intimacy, it’s undeniable that Hacksaw Ridge’s eventual success is a testament to that very fact. If the battlefield sequences are somehow more humane than the first act’s fumbling attempt at light dramedy, it’s because we are staring squarely at the gruesomeness and inhumanity of war, but guided by one so indomitable in his quest to preserve humanity. The dynamic is powerful, aided immeasurably by Garfield, who as Doss exudes impassioned sincerity even as he is put through the rigors of emotional and physical violence – a hero not just because of his actions during a war, but for taking a stand against the senselessness of it.
The Blu-ray/DVD includes a handful of deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, and a Veterans Day greeting from Gibson.