How do you make an exciting war film about a guy who refuses to even touch a weapon? You get Mel Gibson. He’ll deliver your American Christian savior story in the foreground, but you can definitely count on some massive gore everywhere else you look. Like Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Hacksaw Ridge is a deeply religious movie, but he makes those Christians fucking pay for it.
Mel Gibson just likes to film violence. I don’t think he can’t help himself. Early in Hacksaw Ridge, during the film’s Aw, Shucks Americana hour, a man suffers a random injury which Gibson makes sure to capture up close in all its blood-spurting glory. It’s superfluous, like he couldn’t handle a whole hour of movie to going by without disgusting us. This is just one of the many reasons I’ve missed the guy.
In the hands of most other directors, Hacksaw Ridge would be unbearably cliché cheese few under 60 could stomach. Its script seems constructed out of cheap imitations of a gazillion other movies. There’s an extended Vince Vaughn drill sergeant scene that is accidentally funny, racist and a timid middle schooler’s imitation of Full Metal Jacket all at the same time. The dialog is so remarkably Hallmark, you’ll be able to quote it as it leaves the actors’ mouths.
In the hands of Mel Gibson, however, it’s a delight, particularly once it gets to his main interest - killing the shit out of everyone. Hacksaw Ridge essentially boils down to three different movies - a love story, a courtroom drama and finally a war film. The final bit is visceral enough to knock the first two bits right out of your brain.
The film opens with war, just to make sure you get a taste before boring you for 40 minutes. It then briefly shows us an important moment from its protagonist’s childhood in which he wrestles with his brother and inexplicably hits him with a brick so hard he gets some kind of concussion. This teaches him to take the “Thou Shalt not Kill” part of the Ten Commandments very seriously. We are taught to accept this as a reason for his extremely stubborn stance as a conscientious objector later in the film. And we do. But just in case, Hacksaw Ridge offers us another flashback reason near the end. This dude has TWO reasons not to kill people!
That little kid grows up to be Andrew Garfield. There’s always an aspect to Andrew Garfield that feels slightly abnormal, but Hacksaw goes out of its way to make him seem strange. He has a weird accent and can’t stop smiling at inappropriate times. During his bootcamp scenes Gibson puts him in a jacket about three sizes too large to make him infantile.
All these important foundation scenes are presented more or less in fast forward, banking on our familiarity with convention to fill in the blanks. Garfield’s Desmond Doss has a shitty but also tragic father (Hugo Weaving, playing his role as if he were in a local production of Our Town). He both finds his calling to be a medic AND falls in love at first sight all in the same afternoon. His brother ships off to war and he feels he must follow for reasons that aren’t made apparent until way later in the film. He seems, in short, kind of like an idiot. A really brave, stubborn idiot.
But he goes to war anyway. The next bit of the movie focuses on the abuse and trials he suffers for refusing to touch a gun during basic training. A lot is made of this, as if the higher-ups persecuting him have no notion of the laws governing their trade. Doss goes to trial and might spend years in prison for something that’s not even illegal. He’s literally saved by a letter that says “Hey, man. This shit isn’t illegal”.
The overall idea is that this means he’s a coward, which is important since everyone in his bootcamp will also be his crew in war (don’t @ me if this is really how the Army works). They all think he’s a wimp who, you know, gets his ass kicked for his convictions and also doesn’t rat on anyone after the fact. I don’t have to tell you he’s going to later tuck in the guts of his biggest bullies, do I?
After an hour, Doss earns the right to fight in a war without a gun, and this movie can finally get to the business of killing people like crazy. This is what we all came for, and Mel Gibson does not disappoint. From the opening moment where a wounded soldier pops up like a Halloween prop just to scare the shit out of you, until the film’s last bit where Andrew Garfield tries his best to have a Captain Phillips moment, Hacksaw Ridge becomes a potpourri of cinematic war violence. You’ve seen some of the moves before, particularly from Saving Private Ryan, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a joy to see someone like Mel Gibson make his stamp on 20th century warfare. I don’t care how miscast the film is (Sam Worthington is great, but can we stop with this whole serious Vince Vaughn thing?), this is what we want, and Gibson delivers.
As an action director, Mel Gibson is extremely underrated. He knows exactly when to focus on the chaos of war and when to make sure we see what we need to see. The script, even in these great war scenes, is awful, but Gibson makes sure the crazy parts are crazy and the quiet parts almost make you sick with tension (someday the guy should make a horror film). I understand the idea that he would choose to break out of Director’s Jail with a movie tailor-made for Christians and old people even if that puts him at a narrative disadvantage, but you can also feel his talent wasted on the more traditional aspects of this film once he finally gets to open up and do what he wants (put maggots on a rotting corpse).
As a “Welcome Back to Hollywood, Mel!” celebration, Hacksaw Ridge still has some issues. Mel can’t not Mel, and when it comes to Japanese representation, he goes all-in like someone who isn’t known for being a racist. The treatment of the “enemy” here is problematic to an absurd degree, almost like a Mel Gibson movie parody. Before we even see Japanese fighters, the script elevates them to supernatural status, claiming they are “animals” and hardly anything can kill them. When they do enter the fray, Gibson makes certain we don’t see any of their faces, treating them as a swarm rather than humans. They are individualized twice - once when Doss patches one up to show us what a nice guy he is and again when one performs Seppuku. There’s a bit where an army dude reports that none of the enemy Japanese soldiers Doss saved made it through the night, and you have absolutely no idea how to read it. It’s fucking creepy.
But you don’t come to a Mel Gibson movie to be held by the hand. The guy, even with all this heat on him to deliver a straight Hollywood movie, just does not give a shit, and I admire that greatly. Gibson clearly wasn’t made for these times. He fits far more into the era of ‘70s renegades whose work we love while making all kinds of excuses for. That he’s boldly going for that shit in 2016 is kind of noteworthy and incredible. I can’t call Hacksaw Ridge a great movie, but I do think it’s one you should see. Hopefully it gives Gibson the juice to make whatever fucked up thing you just know he wants to make next.