Hacksaw Ridge is filled with the things that Mel Gibson likes: gruesome violence, boys being boys, Christianity, lame dick jokes, moral absolutes, etc. Given his previous output, Gibson would seem a natural fit for a World War II movie, in those scenes of Hacksaw Ridge that feature warfare, the movie is as visceral and intense as any WWII film since Saving Private Ryan; unfortunately there is a lot in the movie that is not combat and the result is a movie hackneyed.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the Seventh-Day Adventist Army Medic who single-handedly rescued seventy five wounded soldiers from the titular Okinawa battlefield and became the only conscientious objector ever to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. It’s a hook-y premise that does not come close to its full potential. Gibson and writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan devote entirely too much time to Doss’ backstory, portraying key moments from his childhood which the audience are meant to believe formed a straight line to his decision to never carry a rifle. This is “A True Story,” as a title card informs us at the beginning of the film, but the writers’ need to fit Doss’s life into a well-structured screenplay makes everything feel totally inauthentic; Doss discovers that he wants to be a medic when he saves an accident victim with a skillfully made tourniquet, and after dropping said victim off at the hospital he meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) who will be the love of his life, things fit together way too neatly. Worse, Knight and Schenkkan have never met a WWII movie cliche they didn’t love, this is never more apparent than the scenes in which Doss meets the men of his unit, a ragtag group of colorful characters with fun nicknames like “Hollywood,” “Chief, “Ghoul,” “Chubby”, and “Italian Guy.” Also, Vince Vaughn plays the hoary old “Sarge” role, a casting choice that never justifies itself, especially since the audience is never rewarded with the sight of the petite Garfield attempting to carry the sizeable Vaughn off the battlefield.
Gibson is not a director of great (or any) subtlety. The dramatic beats of Hacksaw Ridge arrive with a needless explanation, even if they are thuddingly obvious. However, the lack of subtlety works like gangbusters in the battle scenes. The Gibson-directed violence in Hacksaw Ridge is expectedly bananas, shot with a care bordering on revelry. Gibson makes the most of what little he is given by the script, which sacrifices the actual, interesting events that are the reason for the movie, for seriously tired backstory. Also disappointing is the portrayal of Japanese soldiers. The Japanese here fare only slightly better than the British of Gibson’s Braveheart, they are not unconscionable monsters, merely fearsome, somewhat underhanded, non-people. One would think that in a movie about a soldier who values human life so much that he will not kill in the heat of combat, a little humanity could be spared for the enemy combatants. Alas, Gibson has little time for anything like moral complexity.
Director: Mel Gibson
Writer: Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan
Cinematographer: Simon Duggan
Editor: John Gilbert
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn