(Hacksaw Ridge, 2017)
Gibson’s strongest and most touching film yet.
By Jak Luke Sharp
Hacksaw Ridge sees Mel Gibson return to the director’s chair. Though most well-known as the titular character in George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy, he has garnered both acclaim and controversy while directing Braveheart (1995), the biblical story The Passion of the Christ (2004), and the under-appreciated brutal epic Apocalypto (2006). Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge falls between both Apocalypto and Passion of the Christ in that it takes certain elements from each – the heavy brutality from the former and the religious ostracisation and subtext from the latter – resulting in Gibson’s strongest and most touching film yet.
This passion project has had a 14-year long wait to be brought to the screen and is self-described by Gibson as a “real” superhero film. Anyone who has the pleasure of seeing Hacksaw Ridge would find little fault in that statement. The true story of Desmond Doss is rather unbelievable as he is a conscientious objector to the fighting in World War II who is also a combat medic that went into battle armed with only a bible. He saved the lives of over 75 people in one of the most brutal battlegrounds in Okinawa without touching or firing a weapon. The story is incredibly immersive and delves into a host of themes regarding family, faith, and fate. The first 40 minutes are all devoted to character development, with Desmond Doss trialling both his family and his faith.
Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, is incredibly rich in his character, who is troubled by a harrowing experience he had as a child. Garfield is excellent and loses himself in the role, something he did not do in Scorsese’s religious epic, Silence (2017). His life blossoms romantically with Dorothy, played by Teresa Palmer, who impresses with a rather minimal but impactful performance, and we witness his turbulent relationship with his father played by the magnificent Hugo Weaving. The film, however, feels broken into two. The first hour can be summed up as a courtroom drama with a lot of dialogue and very little going on; the second half the film takes us to hell on earth. Though set during the war, Hacksaw Ridge is not a war film. It does not glorify combat by portraying some of the strongest depictions of violence seen on screen. The film is a perfect Ying and Yang combination of structure where both halves are incredibly different in tone and atmosphere but work beautifully together as a combined piece. Each half requires the other, resulting in making the film’s structure rather metaphorical to the idea of faith itself.
That is not to say Gibson’s film does not have certain issues. Firstly, the casting of Vince Vaughn as Sgt. Howell does not work and Vaughn struggles to pull off a verbally strong character which leaves certain aspects of the film flat in the second and third act. It is also clear that, with a rather small budget for a film of this scope, Gibson has cut costs by shooting the film in his native land of Australia and hired a great number of Australian actors as principal characters. For the most part, they are all excellent, except for the casting of both Sam Worthington as Captain Glover and Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker. Both actors have absolutely zero charisma and screen presence and never showcase any real ability, except for delivering dialogue well. It would not be a huge issue if they were not pivotal characters to the story that add specific issues to Garfield’s character that, due to their performances, fall flat. Despite these problems, though, Gibson has broken his decade-long hiatus with a visually powerful film that balances its structure perfectly.