Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s version of the true story of Desmond Doss, a WWII medic who refused to touch a firearm due to his religious convictions, is perhaps the most uncompromising depiction of war ever captured on camera. To describe the film as “violent” would be a gross understatement. It is nothing short of gruesome, perhaps self indulgently so. Anyone who remembers The Passion of the Christ knows that Gibson has a bit of a fixation on coupling religious themes with horrid violence, yet out of that apparent contradiction he crafts compelling human drama. Hacksaw Ridge has a few noteworthy shortcomings that make it an odd contender at this year’s Academy Awards, but it remains a gripping film and a worthy showcase for the acting talents of star Andrew Garfield.
Indeed, Garfield’s performance coupled with the film’s portrayal of it’s lead character is one of the film’s principal strengths. Garfield bequeaths his character with a simple charm and affable smile that make him instantly likable in the pre-war scenes. His polite, kind hearted nature aligns our sympathies with him early on and deftly sets us up for the emotional pummeling we’re going to take later. Desmond interprets the commandment “thou shalt not kill” literally, and thus refuses to touch a firearm after joining the army. As his character endures ridicule and abuse from his fellow soldiers and superior officers, Garfield portrays Desmond’s emotional and physical suffering in a way that grants his character’s convictions an undeniable sense of authenticity. We admire his unshakable resolve and never once doubt the rightness of his actions. Once his journey carries us into the blasted hellscape of war torn Japan the brutal carnage surrounding him provides stark contrast to his guiding beliefs.
Here, it is worthy of note that while the film has overtly religious overtones, it does not have a religious message or agenda. The faithful will certainly find it gratifying to have a Christian hero, but belief is not a barrier of entry to engagement with the character. Indeed, though his faith is ostensibly the central driving force behind his convictions, the film portrays his experiences in his formative years as being far more influential. A childhood fight with his brother and a teenage confrontation with his abusive father carry most of the emotional weight. His faith is the canvas upon which these influential experiences are hung, and that makes him infinitely more relatable in a filmic sense.
Speaking of his formative experiences, the actors surrounding him during these early scenes turn in some stellar performances too. Most notably, Hugo Weaving gives a nuanced portrayal of Desmond’s father, a man who is both abusive drunk and loving father in equal measure. Scarred by his experiences fighting in The Great War, he is prone to fits of child beating and spousal abuse, yet when faced with the prospect of losing his sons to a new global conflict, none can doubt the depth to which he loves and fears to lose his children. He is a contradictory character to which Weaving grants immense emotional depth and it seems quite a shame that he was snubbed for the Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Also worthy of note is Teresa Palmer who plays Dorothy, Desmond’s love interest. Though not as memorable as Weaving, she turns in a solid, believable performance that serves the narrative well. Positioning a romance at the front of the story is perhaps an easy way to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, but who cares if it was difficult to do or not. It’s effective. Her tearful support of him during his trials and tribulations give him something tangible to fight for when he’s mired in the trenches of Japan. However, their romance is hampered by some pacing issues: a single scene separates their first kiss from his proposal, and a bedroom scene pops up out of nowhere after dealing with unrelated plot threads, but neither issue is deal breaking. Their romance feels rushed, but still authentic.
In fact, the biggest issue with the film (which likewise is not deal breaking) actually has to do with the battle scenes. While much has been said about Gibson’s fetishistic fixation on gore, the problem here isn’t the intensity of the violence but the focus of it. Battle scenes are lengthy affairs filled with scene after scene of brutality, often focusing on faceless extras biting it by the dozens. The ebb and flow of the battle is conveyed through the more combat oriented supporting characters, meaning that our hero often gets lost in the chaos. When the battles start, the initial shock value of the violence lends the sequence real emotional impact, but once the images of wanton death start to compound upon each other things start to feel self indulgent and engagement with the sequence lapses. Our hero’s personal narrative of finding the wounded and getting them to safety is constantly interrupted by gory imagery that has no relation to him. Even the location of these scenes on the battlefield relative to our hero is often ambiguous. In short, the film lacks beats within the action. Keeping the camera focused on our hero as the chaos of the battle erupts around him would have made the sequences more engaging. Furthermore, additional reaction shots and close-ups were needed to maintain emotional investment throughout.
Considering that Hacksaw Ridge is up for Best Picture and Best Director, it strikes me as odd that the film has obvious pacing problems and issues with balancing spectacle and emotional engagement during action sequences. In the grande scheme of the film these are relatively minor quibbles, but they are quibbles nonetheless. Best Picture nominees are held to a standard of near perfection, and Hacksaw Ridge certainly falls short of that mark. It is an excellent film, but no more than excellent. It’s greatest strength lies in the acting talents of Andrew Garfield, who seems a very likely candidate to bring home a golden statue for his efforts. An interesting turn of events to consider since his former romantic partner, Emma Stone, is likely to take home Best Actress for her role in La La Land. That would make for quite the uncanny parallel with the ending of La La Land would it not?