Can art be a form of atonement?
That seems to be the case Mel Gibson is trying to make. After a ten-year absence from directing — his last run at the helm in Apocalypto arrived between a drunk driving arrest and leaked recordings of bigoted rants — Gibson is back with Hacksaw Ridge, a war film that boldly finds bravery in pacifism. If this film is a form of penance, it is a medieval one; Gibson flogs his characters, but that makes the ultimate catharsis all the more sweet.
The film is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who enlisted in the U.S. Army as a medic. Doss refused to even carry a weapon due to his beliefs, despite pressure from peers and commanders. Hacksaw Ridge opens on a battlefield, blood spurting and bodies flying gracefully in a ballet of limbs. The film then begins an extended flashback, tracing Doss’ life from childhood up through his enlistment and deployment, during which time he faces scorn for his pacifist views.
Lanky and quick to give a sheepish grin, Doss is unlike most war heroes in film. This is a man who must suffer for his beliefs, and willingly persist in that suffering. Although he puts a bit too much twang into his Appalachian accent, Garfield does an excellent job in the role. He makes the character believable as a man who wants to serve his country and his God, despite the pressure from both ends.
The rest of the casting is largely good. Hugo Weaving brings humanity to Doss’ father, a World War I veteran twisted by his time in war. Theresa Palmer brings a cheerful grace to her role as Doss’ fiancée, Dorothy, although the film does not give her much to do
As expected for a war movie, Doss and his fellow soldiers form a colorful cast of personalities under the command of strict leaders. Their direct commander is no-nonsense drill instructor Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), who wastes no time breaking them down with some biting insults. Vaughn is stepping into the well-trod role of vicious drill sergeant — think R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket — and he is out of his depth. He lacks the grit to be truly menacing, coming across more as a grumpy gym teacher. The script is at least strong enough to keep the character entertaining.
Far more comfortable in their roles are Sam Worthington as Captain Glover, who barely hides his disdain for Doss, and Luke Bracey as Smitty, a tough guy who swells with machismo.
The centerpiece of the film is the battle to take the titular ridge, which will serve as the launching point for a full-scale takeover of Okinawa. Ever the stylist, Gibson finds in the ridge a potent metaphor for spiritual struggle. Filmed from the ground, Hacksaw Ridge seems impossibly tall, as if the men must storm the gates of Heaven. Ironically, Hell waits above.
Gibson’s films have long had a fascination with violence, both physical and spiritual. In his hands, the battle for Hacksaw Ridge is not merely an attempt to seize control of the battlefield; it is a crucible for the soul. The film takes on the atmosphere of a horror movie, more than any other war film in recent memory. The battle scenes are long and gruesome, as the camera lingers on images of shredded limbs and wailing faces. The human body, as Hacksaw Ridge sees it, is only so much meat.
If this all sounds ghastly, it is, but that is the nature of war. Gibson does not shy away from the grotesque, but he also does not revel in it. There is nothing glorious in the film’s portrayal of war, though it does find virtue in the men fighting.
Gibson prefers his imagery to be striking rather than subtle, even outside of combat. There is a particular scene in which Doss, covered in blood and ash, washes himself clean, sunlight pouring through the water. The comparison with baptism is obvious, but the scene is so beautiful in the moment that it hardly matters. Hacksaw Ridge occasionally goes too far with its presentation, almost to the point of being comical. Ultimately, though, it succeeds far more than it stumbles.
Will Hacksaw Ridge redeem Gibson in the eyes of Hollywood? It seems like it could, given the reception so far. Even if it does not, the film reestablishes Gibson as one of the most talented big-budget directors around. Hacksaw Ridge is a grueling war film, but the suffering is worth it for the spiritual ends. Better yet, the film highlights one of World War II’s most unlikely heroes: a man who saved many lives on the battlefield without taking any.