Andrew Garfield is real life war hero Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who goes into battle as a medic with no weapon. But first he must manage to get through army training without ever so much as touching a rifle.
Hacksaw Ridge is a very odd movie. It consists of two absolutely separate halves and has more flaws than you can count on all of the fingers of arms that are lost in the battle scenes. Yet despite my predisposition to dislike material Mel Gibson creates (sorry I can’t help it) and the fact that the whole way through I knew it was outrageously troubled and problematic and in some cases just plain ridiculous, it won me over.
The first part of the movie is extremely odd and overlong. There are some good moments of family drama and emotion in this first half it’s just that 20 minutes would have probably sufficed. Really I think Andrew Garfield’s central performance is compelling and charming enough to convey what is needed in much less time than the film gives him. You already know and like the character, but then Gibson keeps on heaping this thick corny sentimentality that just isn’t needed. The performances are terrific across the board – but the script isn’t.
The film then undergoes a whiplash inducing change in tone when doss goes to the boot camp and suddenly we’ve gone from emotional family drama to a more comic version of the Dirty Dozen. You know you’ve essentially entered a new film when you go from the prosthetics and depression of Hugo Weaving’s moving portrayal of a father with crippling alcohol problems, to Vince Vaughn. Yes that’s right the one and only Vince Vaughn. Although it has to be said he’s actually very good here. The thing is with Vince Vaughn, while he regularly makes terrible movies, there’s always been a certain something about him that made you think – you know what, with the right script you could be quite funny. This is proven here.
It takes a couple of minutes to readjust to the new tone of the movie, but although it’s jarring it’s certainly a welcome change. From this moment on the movie really moves along at a decent pace and although still riddled with problems, Gibson’s kinetic direction manages to override this. Because Gibson is far more comfortable with action and war than he is with emotions. Gibson knows this though, and really exploits the fact that he knows how to direct carnage well. As soon as the shooting happens Gibson uses another jarring tonal change, but this time it’s completely effective. Where the change from sickening sentimentality to dark comedy didn’t really mean anything and just felt like two separate scripts had been glued together, the plunge from this dark comedy to full on brutal gory war scenes really hits home the sheer horror of the events. And let me tell you, if you thought Saving Private Ryan was brutal and breath-taking oh boy. It has to be said the break out of the fighting in Hacksaw Ridge is insane. It’s genuinely shocking in a world where many have said violence can never be shocking again, and I think this in itself is an impressive feat. However it’s also extremely tasteless and exploitative. There’s something I find quite uncomfortable about the glorification of war and real life war specifically. Gibson is clearly playing these mass deaths for enjoyment and that doesn’t sit quite right with me. What’s worse is that it’s so well directed that despite it just not sitting well with me, I did enjoy it. I was amazed by the sheer brutality of it, and sufficient character had been set up in the boot camp section for me to care for a handful of the soldiers.
Probably the most impressive thing that Hacksaw Ridge does for me was to constantly throw in tasteless exploitative scenes, outrageous Christ imagery shots, horribly chest beating and patriotic dialogue played without irony, all these things that should turn me off from movies entirely and yet still fully engaged me visually end emotionally. As a film it really defies my rating system, because I know full well it’s a flawed and fairly problematic movie. But it gripped me and say what you want about Mel Gibson, the man can direct action. The film as a whole doesn’t quite hold together, but certain moments are truly exceptional.