With his usual standing as an action movie star, it's easy to forget sometimes that Mel Gibson has also carved out a career as a successful and often highly-acclaimed film director. While aspects of his films are often cause for contention (particularly with his 2004 blockbuster 'The Passion of the Christ'), he has consistently demonstrated vision and skill as a cinematic storyteller. His output though isn't prolific, and ten years after 'Apocalypto', he's returned with 'Hacksaw Ridge', a sweeping film about a tremendous act of bravery in the Second World War. It seems like a great fit for Gibson, but this may turn out to be the problem with the film.
The film looks at U.S. Army medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who wanted to fight for the U.S. against the Japanese, but refused to kill or hold a weapon. Dismissed instantly as insane, his bravery and religious conviction lead him to become the hero of the Battle of Okinawa, saving the lives of many men.
Doss' story is an extraordinary tale of bravery and one perfectly suited to cinematic adaptation. The only contentious aspect of Doss' story is his religious conviction - that of committing to the commandment of 'Thou Shall Not Kill'. On one hand, this can come across as inspiring if handled in the right way. On the other though, if mishandled, it can alienate much of its audience and make Doss seem a tad self-righteous and obnoxious. Unfortunately, 'Hacksaw Ridge' falls into the latter category. The screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan doesn't know how to handle it other than to lay it on thick throughout the film, and Gibson enhances it at every turn. In many ways, the handling of the religious aspects of the story make the film feel like a faith-based propaganda film rather than a moving war drama, making it unclear what the audience is supposed to walk away from. It also doesn't help that the film overstays its welcome and spends far too much time actually getting to the battle itself, so that the religious themes become overwhelming and suffocating by the end.
The film also suffers from Gibson submitting to his worst indulgences. It has a very 90s idea of sentimentality and drama, and while that worked in 'Braveheart', it feels obvious and heavy-handed here. The ingenuity and bravery he demonstrated in his last two films is entirely absent, the film instead looking too slick and too over-produced. It has very little sense of rhythm, the cinematography and editing are forgettable (the obviously Australian landscape barely scrapes by as convincingly American) and the score plays to all the obvious emotional beats. It's also incredibly violent - almost gleefully so - which is all the more uncomfortable when the film is about a man who abhors violence. I understand the desire to show the horrors of war, but there's an almost cartoonish, excessive goriness to the violence, the camera revelling in it a bit too much. The sheer amount of carnage becomes overwhelming to the point where you become desensitised. It also doesn't help that the depiction of the Japanese is woefully simplistic, reducing them to a faceless antagonistic mass. The depiction of war in 'Hacksaw Ridge' might be technically impressive, but it feels woefully out-of-date, as if 'Saving Private Ryan' hadn't happened.
The depiction of war in 'Hacksaw Ridge' might be technically impressive, but it feels woefully out-of-date, as if 'Saving Private Ryan' hadn't happened.
There's not much to say about the performances. Andrew Garfield is fine as Doss, playing the country boy innocence and religious "purity" with a total conviction that it makes him equal parts endearing and annoying. He does the best with the material that he has, but there's only so far he can go. The ensemble cast includes Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths (as well as a bevy of familiar faces from Australian television), but even with all these talented actors, no one really stands out. Doss' fellow soldiers are all impressive-looking men, but even that ends up being a distraction, as if Gibson had simply gone for the hunkiest Aussie men he could find, but it's the lesser-known actors that end up giving the film its soul, the energy of their performances compensating for the energy lacking in the film, even if they're essentially playing with soldier stereotypes.
There might have been potential in the material, but 'Hacksaw Ridge' doesn't take advantage of it. Mel Gibson clearly has skill as a director, but his penchant for extreme violence and his overbearing religious conviction end up getting in the way. 'Hacksaw Ridge' clearly thinks it will leave its audience inspired and cheering for its hero, but much like Clint Eastwood's insipid 'Sully', it takes that for granted and does nothing to earn it. This might be the story of an unforgettable war hero, but Gibson has made a mostly forgettable film about him.