Hacksaw Ridge

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Knight; Robert Schenkkan

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Unlike the hero at the heart of Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade I went into battle fully protected by a weapon: my overactive imagination. Turns out, psychological preparation is kind of necessary as you enter the gauntlet of Hacksaw Ridge‘s final hour. Things become real, and in a hurry. Of course there is violence and gore characteristic of war films but this is Mel Gibson we’re talking about.

But this is also the Mel Gibson I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. In spite of the way he once again seems to enjoy flagellating audiences with punishing sequences of human cruelty Hacksaw Ridge ultimately is worth the toiling. The paradoxical sense of uplift we feel in the moments where we are also suffering the most makes his return to filmmaking a welcomed one. I was so moved by this I couldn’t help but applaud during the credits. Meanwhile everyone else quietly filtered out. Did I feel awkward? Yes. Yes I did. But it was still the right thing to do.

Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield in one of the most sensational performances of the year) felt a tremendous sense of moral obligation — a sense of doing what is right not just for himself but for his country — when he enlisted as a medic in World War II. Hailing from a humble community tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor after pulling 75 men off of Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest confrontations in the Pacific Theater. A devout Christian whose violent upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic, war-scarred father irrevocably changed him, Doss’ enlisting became the stuff of legend when he told his commanding officers the Sixth Commandment forbade him from lifting a weapon; that he could serve his country by saving lives as opposed to taking them.

Hacksaw Ridge is somewhat a tale of two halves — one is noticeably stronger than the other and unsurprisingly the drama genuinely becomes compelling in the latter half, when we dive headlong into hell with Private Doss, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and a company of men who haven’t exactly taken a shine to the Bible-thumping pacifist. Like the brave men who took to the cargo net for the Ridge, Gibson’s cameras charge into battle with a gusto that’s immediately met with some of the most grisly war action you’re likely to ever see. It’s a breathless, chaotic and disturbingly realistic account of the bloody affront to the Japanese who were slowly losing control of the island, despite heavy losses on the American side.

While the film that precedes the fight itself feels much more compressed — particularly the budding romance between Doss and the nurse he meets at the town hospital where he decides he will donate blood, the beautiful Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) — there’s enough there to build a foundation for empathy. Perhaps this is a convenient time to forgive a film for being so contrived, but Palmer and Garfield’s chemistry feels appropriately based more upon a certain Look and Feel — both actors look of the era and their sweet romance feels unpretentious, genuine. They’re wonderful together. And while their passion for each other is palpable it’s more about the way the soldier was raised that offers the most compelling angle.

Gibson zeros in on two pivotal moments in Doss’ childhood — moments that, aside from his unwavering devotion to God, inform almost every decision he makes as an adult. One is an early scene in which Desmond and his younger brother Hal get into a play fight that turns ugly when the former smacks his brother in the head with a brick in an attempt to claim victory. Young Desmond, haunted by the fact he could have killed Hal, instead of taking a long hard look in the mirror takes a long hard look at a picture on their living room wall, a list of the Ten Commandments in a moment of silent and sincere repentance. Then, later, Doss finds himself stepping in between his father (a heartbreakingly good Hugo Weaving) and mother (Rachel Griffiths) during yet another bout of domestic violence. A pistol becomes involved. Plagued by his experiences in World War I, Tom Doss embodies the soul-crushing effects of survivor’s remorse. Desmond seems to take more after his mother, who is a strong and positive influence, despite her suffering at the hands of an unstable husband.

There’s an argument to be made against Gibson injecting blood and violence into almost every possible scene — did we need to see the needle pierce the skin? Ditto the leg injury sustained by the local mechanic, did we really need that? Words like gratuitous, self-indulgent and perverse frequently have popped up, but I’d wager this grim foreshadowing is actually not only creatively inspired but it helps prepare the viewer mentally as we leave behind the quaint Virginian town and journey out onto a smoky battlefield. Those spurts of violence are perpetuated as Doss’ idealism is met with hostility by his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers at boot camp. Watching him getting harassed unmerciful isn’t exactly pleasant.

In fact much of Hacksaw Ridge is far from comfortable viewing. As it should be. Gibson brings the horrors of war, and particularly this violent confrontation to life in a stunningly authentic and emotionally robust portrait. His first film in 10 years reminds us what made him a compelling filmmaker: his passionate touch, his ability to channel emotion through the lens, his eye for the beautiful as well as the barbaric. Amidst the loss of life there grows a flower. Doss’ heroic actions deserve to be celebrated and it would be something of a disservice not to show us precisely what kind of odds he was up against. What a powerful story.

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Recommendation: As both a tribute to a real war hero and a bloody depiction of war, Hacksaw Ridge manifests as one of the most punishing but ultimately rewarding film experiences of the year. The emotional and visual components match up favorably with Steven Spielberg’s seminal war film Saving Private Ryan, though I personally stop short of saying it tops that epic. I just have to recommend you bear down and watch this one. It’s an important film and a remarkable true story of courage and remaining true to one’s self.

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Lord, help me get one more. One more.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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19 thoughts on “Hacksaw Ridge

  1. Pingback: The 2016 Digibread Awards | digitalshortbread

  2. Man, I’ve been looking forward to this. I freaking love a good war film, and I really like Garfield. Plus Gibson doing something again? Interested! This looks like it ticks all the right boxes to be good.

    • Hacksaw Ridge is great! Mel Gibson has crafted something that is very tough to watch but fortunately he gives you plenty of time to get acclimated. The battle scenes though .. . . whoa. (Shiver.)

      P.S. I’ve extended the comment deadline on my blog to 60 days because between the time you left this comment and the time I was getting back to responding to you, the window had already closed. So now everyone has twice as long! 😉

  3. Pingback: Allied | digitalshortbread

  4. Great review Tom! I’ve always been a big fan of Mel Gibson, the director, even if I haven’t exactly loved most of the films he has made which gets me anticipated for this. Glad to hear Andrew Garfield is great in this too. Between this and Scorsese’s Silence, he’s going to be a major contender come Oscar season.

    • You’ve probably already read quite a few things that disparage Garfield’s performance (at least regarding his southern accent) but I think he nailed it. And he was effortless in getting the audience to sympathize with him. What a brilliant and brave man he really was, and Gibson delivers a movie to really emphasize that. The gore is certainly justified, even if it is tough to endure. I too am glad Gibson has come back with a good one. And I’m so curious as to know what the conversation would have been like if Hacksaw Ridge was a total dud.

    • Mel Gibson proves that his affinity for showing lots of blood and gore actually has merit. It showed just how cruel men can become and it’s heart wrenching watching a good man like Doss have to experience it first hand. What a powerful movie.

  5. SO glad to read more enthusiasm for this film. I loved it man. I get the conversation about the gore, but for me it had two very distinct purposes. First, it paints a picture of hell. The idea the young men had of war are instantly squashed once that first bullet is fired. They are in hell. But it also allows Doss to contrast the darkness of battle with his light. The war scenes picture death, but right their among it Doss is picturing life. I would even go as far as to say this movie has an anti-war message.

    I’m such a fan of this movie and have been chewing on it for days. Hope to see it again before it leaves theaters.

    • I agree re: the violence. It sets the stakes so high once we get over the ridge. It changes the attitude of the soldiers immediately, most significantly Doss who was able to find the positivity in everything. Not here, though. That was extremely compelling to watch. Also yes, war is hell. If people want a softer, less confronting vision of events they’d be better served by watching a documentary or something. Gibson has the guts to tell it like it is/was. Have to admire that. I really enjoyed the uplift here, but I was so shaken by everything I’m unsure if I will sit through it again. Kudos to you though, if you do Keith!

  6. Heh, we certainly are at opposite ends on this one! I know its Mel, but I didn’t understand the need for all the gore. Rats eating maggots out of corpses?! SPR isn’t gory at all compared to this, and that movie is horrifying! It also doesn’t have a cheesy romantic comedy short to start it off 😛

    Then again, I seem to be the only one that couldn’t stand this film 😉 Funny, cos I really liked Blood Father.

    • That’s okay Jordan, this is the beauty (?) of film blogging and getting to share our experiences: we all come from different backgrounds and we all have different perspectives. Like, for example, I share in your sentiment that the romance was a bit too hackneyed and really really contrived. But at the same time I don’t share your thoughts that this makes SPR not very gory; remember that guy lying on the ground calling out for his mother? That image is one I will never forget!

      • Oh totally man, if everyone loved the same movies it’d be boring as fuck. I love having good proper, back and forth discussions. Everyone doesn’t need to agree all the time, that’s what makes these comment sections fun. I think even arguments can be beneficial as long as it doesn’t devolve into petty insults that are totally irrelevant.

        Sorry, I am ranting.

        I do remember that scene you mentioned, though the most memorable for me was when two guys struggle, one gets on top and slowly drives a knife into the other guys chest. That was bruuuutal. But it was more psychologically brutal, you know? Admittedly though I haven’t seen SPR for a while now, I need to upgrade my old as fuck DVD copy.

        The biggest problem I had with this though was near the end – all this slow motion footage of massive amounts of people being burned alive, with swelling, orchestral music in the background. It honestly disgusted me. Perhaps I’m changing in my old age (HA!) but I thought that part was a bit over the top. before all that though, some of the frantic action was quite good

        • There was a long slow motion sequence in the opening minutes of SPR when blood was spraying and people were burning as well. I think a lot of people have prejudice against Gibson because he has this tendency to really linger on the nastiness and to some, for longer than is necessary. That I can’t debate because there are definitely some moments in The Passion where it would have been nice if he had just cut and let that be it.

          • I admit I don’t remember that scene. Need to rewatch for sure.Thing is, I don’t follow celeb gossip, I have nothin against him, enjoyed Blood Father a lot. Don’t know why but this just didn’t have any emotional impact on me.

            Good discussion mate. See this is what I like. Good debates/discussions. Not everyone has to agree. Not to mention you have convinced me I need a BR version of SPR immedietely

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