Review: Hacksaw Ridge
PLOT: The true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh-day Adventist who, due to his beliefs, refused to carry a weapon during his time fighting in WW2. Despite this, his heroism and courage as a field medic became legendary, with him being one of only three conscientious objectors to ever win the Medal of Honor.
REVIEW: As a critic who watches, and reviews, hundreds of movies a year, it’s easy to become jaded, and while I like a lot of movies, I can probably count on one hand the number that have really moved me this year. Only one of those almost provoked tears, and that movie is HACKSAW RIDGE. Mel Gibson’s first film as a director since APOCALYPTO, and his first in English since BRAVEHEART, this is a triumphant return to the mainstream for him and a movie that’s so good even his harshest critics won’t be able to ignore it or write it off.
Functioning as both an inspirational tale of heroism and pacifism while also functioning as one of the most vicious and gruesome war movies ever made, HACKSAW RIDGE is the rare film that could have only been made by its director. In anyone else’s hands, the spirituality would have been toned-down (or eliminated entirely) or, had it been made by a devoutly Christian studio, the violence would have been eliminated and the religion would have been amped up so much it would have been dogmatic. This is not that kind of thing, and religious or not, there’s very little chance any audience member will fail to be moved by Doss’s story.
Played by Andrew Garfield in what’s another in a long-line of fine performances (including too-little seen turns in movies like BOY A and 99 HOMES), Doss may rank as one of the most humble and unassuming heroes in Hollywood history. Kind-hearted and sporting a quick smile, Doss never flaunts his spirituality or asks others to make special concessions for him. He simply refuses to kill, even though he knows that by not carrying a rifle, he goes into what one character calls “the hellfire of battle” without any means to protect himself – making it unlikely he’ll ever return home to his beloved wife (Teresa Palmer in the most appealing performance of her career).
Made entirely in Australia with a largely Aussie cast, it’s amazing at how authentic the period Americana aspects of the film come off. Even a famous Aussie actor like Hugo Weaving is utterly convincing as Doss’s veteran father, who’s become a violent drunk following his wartime service, prone to bouts of extreme guilt having survived while his friends died.
Cleanly split into two halves, Gibson opts for a simple approach in the romantic, sweet, first half, only to ramp-up the carnage to virtual horror movie levels in the second half. One cannot exist without the other, with the first half bittersweet in hindsight, while the second is all the more horrifying as we watch characters we’ve grown to love be killed or horribly maimed in battle.
If the movie’s controversial, it’ll likely be due to Gibson’s unflinching approach to the violence, which, like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and APOCALYPTO before it, stretches the limits of what’s ever been seen in a mainstream movie. Again, this is distinctly Gibson, with him having always shown a fascination, or perhaps even an obsession over the physical effects of carnage. While he occasionally goes too far, such as when Luke Bracey’s alpha-male soldier uses the torso of a fallen soldier as a shield, you have to admire the way Gibson goes all-in each and every time. This is a movie about a gentle man, but it’s not a gentle film.
For me, everything about HACKSAW RIDGE is exceptional, with Gibson getting amazing work out of actors who’ve I’ve often criticized in my reviews, including Vince Vaughn as Doss’s sarge, Bracey (showcased to much better effect than he was in POINT BREAK) and Sam Worthington as the company captain. At 130 minutes, there’s no flab whatsoever on the film, with it moving along at such a quick pace it felt much briefer than it actually is, to the point I actually found myself wishing it would go on longer – the sign of a great film. I simply didn’t want it to end.
At the risk of this review sounding more like a love-letter to Gibson than a well-rounded criticism, I can’t help but give HACKSAW RIDGE a perfect score. Does that mean I think it’s a perfect film? No – it’s not. Yet, I can’t deny that I found it to be a profoundly moving experience and there’s no other film that’s come out this year that’s affected me or made me feel quite the way this has. For me, HACKSAW RIDGE is about on-par with BRAVEHEART, and there’s no doubt in my mind this will rank as my favorite film of 2016 by the time the year is done. Please go see this in theaters. Real movies like this deserve our support.
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