Film Review: 'Hacksaw Ridge'
Can you believe it's been a full ten years since Mel Gibson has directed a feature film? Previously embroiled in controversy, the director makes a huge comeback in Hacksaw Ridge, a movie that is so unmistakably his own that it sometimes interferes with the tale of its leading hero.
We all love a good comeback tale, and that's definitely the case for Gibson, whose previous directing foray was in 2006's Apocalypto, a film marked by its explicit violence. And now, with Best Director and Best Picture Oscar nominations for Hacksaw Ridge, one could say that Gibson has successfully revived his career.
Ironically enough, for most of this 139-minute movie, we even forget that Gibson is the film's leader, as we spend the first half of the film deeply exploring what made real-life war hero Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield, earning his first-ever Oscar nomination for the role) the man that he was. Desmond (at first played as a child by Darcy Bryce) is a home-grown Virginia boy brought up with a strong Christian faith. As we quickly see, he dishes out a brutal injury to his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) in a fight that nearly takes his life, scaring him from ever committing violence again. Tense, life-forming moments are interspersed among some happier, more nostalgic memories as well, giving the first half of the movie a harmonious balance. It's that gentle story-building that Gibson excels at, which was also readily apparent in The Passion of the Christ.
We then see Desmond grow up into his adult self (Garfield), a do-gooder with a strong sense of justice and a helper when urgently needed. His quick-thinking comes in handy when he rescues a neighbor pinned and bleeding out under his car, using his belt as a tourniquet as they rush him to the hospital.
It's this day that sets off a series of events where Desmond meets and falls in love with nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), finds his calling in the medical profession, and is driven to serve his country in the ongoing World War II as a medic.
But his joining of the army is much to the chagrin of his father Tom (Hugo Weaving) a World War I vet who has seen hell with his own eyes and does not desire the same for Desmond and Hal (played as an adult by Nathaniel Buzolic). But in boot camp, where he is coached and lectured by Sargeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) is where he finds his two core beliefs tested: that he will never touch a gun and that he will never kill another human.
This first half of the film is expertly handled by Gibson, who uses steady pacing and sharp acting from Garfield to really allow us to take in just how principled of a man Desmond is, especially as he meets heaps of resistance and mockery from his commanding officers and army comrades. We may know the outcome of this American hero story, but that does not stop Gibson from keeping us intrigued as he lays the groundwork of life experiences that all come into play during the titular battle.
However, once we transition to the film's namesake battleground in Japan, the movie becomes unmistakably Gibson - and not exactly in a good way. With an apparent fascination with violence, he does not shy away from showing the gruesome terrors of war in nearly complete detail. It is not to say that showing what truly happens in war is necessarily bad, but that Gibson handles the war sequences as if they were an action flick, forgetting to put us in the minds and hearts of soldiers fighting in the middle of it - especially Desmond. In this second half, Gibson merely shows us what happens, but does not make us feel it.
When the film does break from the violence in order to show us Desmond's massively heroic deeds, we get brief flashes of what made the first half of Hacksaw Ridge so enjoyably memorable, especially because Garfield was a fantastic choice to play Desmond. It inevitably encourages comparisons to Steven Spielberg's masterpiece in Saving Private Ryan, which excelled not just technically, but emotionally when it came to its haphazard battle sequences. Unfortunately, Hacksaw Ridge is missing that key component, and because of it, the movie feels mismatched with its two opposing halves.
In the end, it all averages out into a movie experience that, while certainly inspiring at the end, doesn't clutch the heart for the entire way through. At the very least, Hacksaw Ridge establishes Gibson's comeback - whether or not he's been forgiven by the entertainment industry remains to be seen - and cements Garfield's status as a high-caliber actor, fully worthy of his leading actor nomination.
There may have been a big missed opportunity in Hacksaw Ridge, but if the promise that Gibson and Garfield show us in this movie is any indication, we have great things from them still to come.
Rated R. 139 minutes.
Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew McKnight (screenplay).
Directed by Mel Gibson.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, and Luke Bracey.