Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 2 hrs. 19 min.
Release Date: November 4th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mel Gibson Actors: Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Ben O’Toole, Jim Robison, Sam Wright, Mikael Koski, Richard Roxburgh
t begins with slow-motion combat – but this is director Mel Gibson’s vision of war, wherein bullets tear flesh apart and explosions light soldiers aflame so that they can writhe about in agony as skin turns to ash. It’s more violent and visceral than most other war pictures – perhaps unnecessarily so – as it contrastingly aims to illustrate the significance of a warrior who does not fight in the thick of battle. It’s a bold, profound idea, though “Hacksaw Ridge” also hopes to become a thrill-packed epic of WWII endeavors.
Then, in a completely pointless bit of narrative jumbling, the setting reverts to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, sixteen years earlier, where youngsters Desmond and Hal Doss roughhouse and grow up under the abusive, bitter, tough rule of their father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving). When Des smacks his brother across the face with a brick, he experiences firsthand the horrors of nearly killing another person. He’s traumatized and remorseful, though it’s never explained why he would adopt these feelings when he so quickly resorted to picking up a brick in the first place, even if to ostensibly mock subdue his brother.
Continuing with the ridiculous timeline twisting, the story picks up fifteen years later, with Desmond (Andrew Garfield) now an adult and harboring a knack for medical skills and the work of the Lord. When he uses his belt to make a tourniquet to save a boy’s life, it’s evident that his usefulness as an impromptu doctor will serve well in the upcoming war. While Des spends his time wooing nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists on a whim, much to the chagrin of their father. Feeling that he has no other choice than to follow suit, Desmond proposes to Dorothy, brushes up on his knowledge with a manual of practical anatomy, and then heads to Fort Jackson for basic training and to become a corpsman, hoping to contribute to his country by saving lives – but not by firing a weapon at the enemy. He’s a full-blooded conscientious objector who wishes to do his duty just as long as he’s not required to carry a firearm.
From here, “Hacksaw Ridge” becomes an entirely different movie. At Fort Jackson, Vince Vaughn plays Sergeant Howell, a drill instructor who loudly spouts hilarious insults so over-the-top that they must surely be a spoof of “Full Metal Jacket.” But then it turns darker, like in “A Few Good Men,” as Desmond’s principles conflict with the Army’s need for a soldier who won’t wield a weapon. “You don’t win wars by giving up your life.” As his commanding officers and peers attempt to get him discharged for his contradictory perspectives, rules and regulations ensure that he must be allowed to work as a combat medic – a concept somewhat preposterous for the time period and the specific situation at hand. Desmond may be proving a point (the film is based on a pretty incredible true story), but it’s a difficult one to comprehend. He’s free to not protect himself, but what about the lives of those around him, who may be directly affected by his refusal to return fire?
In another rather sudden shift of tone and imagery, the setting becomes Okinawa in May of 1945, where the rushing of Hacksaw Ridge attempts to rival the storming of Normandy Beach as seen in “Saving Private Ryan.” The bloodshed is high (humans become bags of meat with the spraying of undiscerning bullets), explosions are constant, and the seemingly incomprehensible chaos is pervasive. There are even moments devoted to using corpses as shields and to show rats feasting on the mutilated bodies of fallen soldiers. It may be uncommonly tense and relentless, but it’s also not the first time a war movie has focused on the hellish brutality and inhumanness of WWII.
But even with its purposeful central character, there’s something bizarrely antithetical about this enormous level of ferocity and dispensed ammunition as it clashes with one individual’s ideals and his skewed interpretation of triage efforts; he’s flawed or biased when it comes to certain victims, and wholly righteous when it comes to bravely heading back into the line of fire unarmed. There are also the inevitable sequences when Desmond comes face to face with the enemy (when a gun would have been mighty handy), and the questionable choices made during these confrontations (such as giving a shot of morphine to an injured Japanese serviceman), or when the opposition refuses to observe the Sabbath. Eventually, he even yields his policy on not touching a gun, so as to grip the barrel as part of a makeshift stretcher. And the rescuing of additional troops long after Hacksaw is abandoned (initially) is a strangely comical bit of heroism, summoning up notes from “Forrest Gump” while simultaneously generating slam-bang action stunts for last-minute escapes. It’s as if Gibson wants to impart a message of peaceful religious convictions while also reenacting grisly, high-octane war moments.
– Mike Massie