For the past decade, Mel Gibson has found himself in movie jail. An Oscar on his mantle and the fact that The Passion of the Christ is the highest grossing R-rated movie of all-time has done little to mitigate the fact that the actor and director’s bigoted statements have left on the public consciousness. For the first time in a decade, Gibson is back behind the camera directing with Hacksaw Ridge, a World War II movie based on the real life heroism of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist who refused to carry a rifle but whose heroism on the battlefield earned him the Medal of Honor. If Gibson, whose films have an overwhelming predilection towards violence, seems like an odd choice to tell the story of a revered pacifist, it’s because he is. Hacksaw Ridge is an amazingly bizarre film, one that admires Doss’ pacifist beliefs while presenting gruesome, festishized violence en masse.
The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is about as cornball as it gets. We’re introduced to the matriarch of the Doss clan Bertha (Rachel Griffins), who is driven by her immense faith, and the alcoholic patriarch Tom (Hugo Weaving), who drinks to escape the wounds from his past in World War I and is prone to violent outbursts towards his wife and children. As a child, Desmond runs along the idyllic fields of Virginia with his brother Harold. During one of their sibling fights, Desmond thwacks his brother upside the head with a brick. The traumatic moment along with his father’s violent outbursts instill in young Desmond a deep belief in avoiding violence.
15 years later, as America begins to enter World War II, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) enlists in the Army despite his father’s objections, and is promised that he won’t have to carry gun and betray his religious beliefs while working as a medic. However, during his basic training his pacifism isn’t exactly warmly greeted by his fellow soldiers and commanding officers. Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) put the young recruit through hell in the hopes of making him quit when he’s not able to be booted out of the Army due to psychological issues. Doss refuses to quit and battles for his right to serve without arm, and is ultimately victorious. On the battlefield in Okinawa, a brutal battle is waged between the American forces and the Japanese, with numerous casualties on both sides. As the Americans retreat, Doss stays behind giving medical aid and assistance to the wounded left behind, saving around 75 lives. A few days later when the battle resumes, Doss himself is severely wounded.
Also wrangled into Hacksaw Ridge is a rather rote and unnecessary love story between Desmond and his beloved Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). We’re witness to their courtship and marriage until the characters is pretty much completely excised from the film once the troops go overseas. This subplot offers nothing to the film as a whole, and doesn’t even come full circle at the end. It’s just an addition that offers a bit more bloat to the film.
What Mel Gibson has really achieved with Hacksaw Ridge is making a 1940s wartime propaganda film with modern day cinematic violence. Considering this is a movie that’s about a conscientious objector, Hacksaw Ridge is incredibly violent – heads are blown apart, limbs severed, bodies set ablaze, stabbings, shootings, just about any kind of brutality that you could possibly imagine. Like The Passion of the Christ, where Gibson was more concerned with the physical torture of Jesus than his teachings, Hacksaw Ridge overloads the audience with violence, even forgetting where Doss is during these ghastly battles, to revel in the various forms of bloodshed. The amount of time given to Doss’ heroic acts pales in comparison to the ample scenes documenting the gory devastation.
None of the Japanese are given even the slightest luxury of a name. Instead, they’re portrayed as a relentless hoard of bloodthirsty zombies that could easily have been swapped out with the undead hoards from World War Z. It wouldn’t be a problem if the film wasn’t about someone who saw everyone as human, even going as far to give aid to wounded Japanese soldiers. Even more baffling is Gibson’s choice to give us the violent death of an anonymous Japanese commander as he commits seppuku while his faithful assistant beheads him.
Hard as they try, none of the cast from Hacksaw Ridge are able to stand above the mired sentimentality and brutality in the script by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Most of the soldiers that make up Doss’ unit are barely characters as opposed to simplistic archetypes pulled from better war movies. Garfield brings a doughy-eyed aw schucks demeanor to his pacifist hero. The rest of the cast is mostly serviceable given the lacking material they’re presented. However, there’s one bit of casting that is just woefully misguided. Hard as he may try, and he certainly does, Vince Vaughn is just not equipped to play a hard-ass drill instructor.
Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s weakest effort as a director, one that feels hamstrung by budgetary limitations and Gibson’s infatuation with gruesome violence. The one reason that Hacksaw Ridge will stand apart from countless other war movies is simply due to the incongruent nature of its construction. It’s a film that extols the virtues of pacifism while reveling in ultraviolence. Non-violence has never been bloodier.