Mark Reviews Movies

Hacksaw Ridge


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mel Gibson

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Milo Gibson, Luke Bracey, Rachel Griffiths, Nathaniel Buzolic, Matt Nable, Richard Roxburgh, Ryan Corr, Goran D. Kleut, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler

MPAA Rating: R (for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images)

Running Time: 2:11

Release Date: 11/4/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 3, 2016

The centerpiece battle sequence of Hacksaw Ridge is an exhausting onslaught of blood, fire, and screams, as well as entrails, explosions, and cries—not to mention limbs, brains, and howls. The movie is ostensibly the story of Desmond Doss, a combat medic who became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, and for a while, it actually is. The opening biographical notes show the movie's Desmond, played by Andrew Garfield, learning the potential devastation of violence as a boy, falling in love before he enlists in the Army, and standing firm against his superior officers in his assertion that he will not even hold a firearm, let alone shoot one at another human being in the context of what he sees as a justified war.

Once the battle becomes the focus, though, director Mel Gibson ignores what makes the movie's protagonist unique. Desmond is pushed to the backdrop and the edges of the frame, running at and diving toward his injured and fallen comrades to check for vital signs, give them a shot of morphine, and carry or drag them to relative safety. The character is undoubtedly there in the midst of combat, but Gibson clearly is more enthralled with the carnage surrounding Desmond. The combat is supposed to be distressing in its graphic details of sudden, bloody killings and mangled bodies. The sequence becomes exhausting, though, because Gibson's primary concern is the pure horror of it.

We lose Desmond and what he stands for throughout the course of the lengthy battle. He's a man of deeply held religious faith. His aversion to violence is personal, formed from a childhood fight with his brother and witnessing the cruelty of an abusive father. Desmond doesn't expect the same from anyone else, especially in a fight for the principles of a country that allows him the religious freedom to serve as, what he calls, a "conscientious participant" in the military.

These are higher, loftier ideas and ideals. They cannot exist in the context of Gibson's approach to the central combat scenes, because the director's mind is on the earthly realities of battle. The common saying is that there are no atheists in foxholes. Ironically, watching these scenes of senseless slaughter and unending brutality has the opposite effect: How can lofty ideals or a higher purpose exist under such conditions, in which moment-to-moment survival is the only priority? Add another word to the list of "distressing" and "exhausting" to describe the major combat sequence here: hopeless.

It's effective on its own, then, as an act of horrific re-creation, but until that point, the story of Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan's screenplay is about a man who tries to understand violence and to see beyond it. A lot of that has to do with an incident in which a young Desmond (Darcy Bryce) strikes his younger brother Harold (played by Roman Guerriero as a boy and Nathaniel Buzolic as a young man) with a brick during a fight. Harold almost dies, and Desmond realizes the consequences of violence.

Before enlisting, Desmond meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at a local hospital, and awkwardly courts her. After Desmond enlists, Dorothy is more an icon of what's at stake for Desmond than a character. The same goes for the soldiers he meets in basic training and, later, serves with at Okinawa—a group of geographically diverse men with nicknames and quirks to further set them apart.

The story's first conflict involves Desmond in a battle of wills against his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and the company's captain (Sam Worthington), who attempt to get him to quit the Army. When calling Desmond a coward doesn't dissuade him, the powers that be eventually court-martial him for disobeying a direct order to pick up a rifle.

Any discussion of ideas is dismissed once Desmond and his company arrive in Okinawa, where the soldiers are ordered to assault a bunker at the top of a plateau, which the survivors of previous engagements have named "Hacksaw Ridge." The payoff—such as it is—to the extended combat sequence is one that is more in line with the character's philosophy. In it, Desmond, who has stayed behind on the battlefield after a strategic retreat, searches for and rescues any soldiers who have been wounded and left behind, single-handedly bringing them to safety.

In a subversive way, it's an anti-climax to the battle, in which the toll of violence is the focus. The victory is not in killing but in saving lives—including those of the enemy. Gibson even offers one moment that subtly draws a parallel between a Japanese soldier and Desmond's abusive father (played by Hugo Weaving) in the way Desmond finds the humanity in both men by understanding the fear behind their capacity for violence. Then the movie returns to presenting the Japanese as inhuman monsters, while outright glorifying the violence with close-ups of firearms being shot in slow-motion.

The challenge here, obviously, is presenting a war story from the perspective of a hero who does not believe in the nature of war. Hacksaw Ridge, though, only seems to embrace the character's moral stance when it's either convenient or necessary for the story. The movie believes that Desmond is sincere in his beliefs. It simply doesn't want to believe them.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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