Uneven "Hacksaw Ridge" Is A Pro-War Movie In Anti-War Packaging

World War II picture “Hacksaw Ridge” marks Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade, a decade that saw him all but blacklisted from Hollywood over several private racist outbursts made public (and some related domestic violence issues). Gibson’s personal life isn’t just relevant to “Hacksaw” (a widely celebrated directorial career went dark, only to be resurrected almost exactly ten years later). It helps explain the successes and failures of a director seemingly shaking off the dust in real time. The upshot is an amazing true story (Hurrah!) not told very well (Hiss!) – a war movie at war with itself.

Andrew Garfield (“99 Homes”) headlines as Virginian Desmond Doss, son of Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). As a young boy Desmond comes to embrace pacifism with one thwack of a brick to his brother’s melon. Terrified by what’s he’s done, 8-year-old Desmond has a come-to-Jesus moment, literally facing down a framed print of the Ten Commandments. We jump forward fifteen years and the now longtime peacenik counterintuitively but passionately joins his brother in enlisting in the Army, to the great chagrin of their father, a former military man himself.

Newly in love with a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), our hero is determined to take his love’s work with him – to serve as a medic. Once thrown into the mix with an unruly company and a ruthless sergeant (an out of place Vince Vaughn), Desmond has no choice but to proclaim himself a conscientious objector. Because of his religious faith he won’t touch a weapon, much less fire one, putting him on a long and winding road of trials and jail time with some beatings thrown in for good measure. He never breaks.

The first half of the film is all old-fashioned cornball military drama, with Garfield underplaying the southern charm just enough to keep things interesting. The supporting cast is uniformly forgettable, but it’s not their story. Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan understandably put all of their attention on Doss, and Garfield is charismatic enough to cover over his director’s incapacity for subtlety. A war movie about a pacifist should engender some restraint, but Mel Gibson is not that kind of director. For a while the picture rolls on the strength of the material and its lead actor. Unfortunately, those wheels fall off at the halfway mark.

In as long as it takes to pull a pin from a grenade, a story of one man’s principled stand for his country but against violence becomes a pornographically violent war movie that frequently strays from its lead character in the heat of battle. Faceless hordes of Japanese soldiers are convincingly made literally faceless, with Desmond occasionally popping up to carry a wounded soldier to safety. Eventually there’s a genuinely terrific sequence in which our hero saves dozens and dozens of lives, but not until after “Hacksaw” becomes the thoughtless war movie it thinks it’s rebuking.

Gibson still has considerable talent for staging carnage, depicting the grisliness of World War II’s Pacific theatre as one exploded kneecap away from an “Evil Dead” movie. It’s wondrous and then appalling, going all too far in showing the absurdities of war. Most of the bloodshed isn’t even from Desmond’s point of view. Just adrenalized flashes of battle that undercut the screenplay’s reverence for its lead.

In total, the film is so mawkish and hawkish that it ends up with nothing to say beyond “Desmond Doss was brave!” An inarguable sentiment to be sure, although not close to the measured, subversive take it might (or should) have been. Instead it’s a morally foggy film, a pro-war movie in anti-war packaging, its director ultimately hoisting himself by his own petard. Like Gibson himself, “Hacksaw Ridge” is full of talent but internally embattled, coming up short where it really matters.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 4, 2016
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenwriter: Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn
MPAA Rating: R (for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images)