'Hacksaw Ridge' Review

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment

Hacksaw Ridge would have revolved around a story of glaring contradictions, even if Mel Gibson wasn't its director. Primarily, it is about the contradictions in a WWII would-be army medic who became a war hero despite refusing to ever kill, fire a bullet or even take a rifle. Perhaps in that context, the difficulty of committing to peace even amidst the horror of war does make this an ideal comeback project for Gibson as a director.

Maybe honoring a peaceful man without glorifying war would have been difficult for any director, but the warning signs are particularly obvious in letting a man with Gibson's on and off-screen history try. Yet fortunately, The Passion of the Christ version of Gibson isn't here to make the effort, and neither is the Braveheart version for that matter. In fact, this Gibson is older and perhaps finally a bit wiser in using the terror of war and violence to exemplify a man who rose above it, and not to drown him out with gore and hate.

The real subject in Hacksaw Ridge is actually Desmond Doss, a young Virginia man who is devoted to God and a life of peace, even while living with an often abusive war veteran father. When WWII comes along, Desmond still feels the call to enlist, figuring he can save lives as a medic without violating the Lord's Commandment not to kill. However, his refusal to even touch a rifle earns him the ire of everyone at basic training, as his superiors try to get him to quit and he even faces prison time for his refusal to obey orders. Yet when he does win the right to serve without carrying a gun, Desmond's service brings him to Okinawa and the battle of Hacksaw Ridge in May 1945, where he makes history that has nothing to do with taking life and everything to do with saving it.

Naturally, things get started with an early montage of war, death and countless soldiers running around on fire at Hacksaw Ridge, all while Desmond narrates a Bible verse in the background. Nonetheless, there are no more war scenes for the first half of the movie, as Gibson tries on different tactics and walks a fine line between heartfelt and pure cornball.

After a revealing flashback showing what kind of violence the young Desmond was capable of, and how the influences of God and his PTSD-afflicted father forged and tested his faith, the film gets bogged down when the older Desmond starts courting a pretty nurse. Leaving aside Gibson's capacities or lack thereof with such old fashioned romance, the real fault does lie with writers Andrew Wright and Robert Schenkkan for their corny dialogue, and over reliance in painting Desmond as a babe in the woods. But when nurse Dorothy slaps Desmond for kissing her without asking, only to ask if he's coming along with her anyway, one can't help but think back to Gibson's taped misogynistic phone calls in some shape or form.

When it is time for Desmond to go into basic training, Vince Vaughn gets in a lot of scenery chewing as the fort's sergeant. Vaughn is actually the only major American actor in the entire cast, since the British Andrew Garfield and Australians like Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Luke Bracy and more are all adopting American or American Southern accents. Countless recent bad movies and a bad TV show made it necessary for Vaughn to need a change of pace, somewhat like Gibson, yet he really isn't that far removed from his usual bombastic routine of one-liners.

Once the laughter stops and Desmond begins his stand against carrying a gun, Gibson goes back to walking a fine line between being earnest and melodramatic. Although this kind of peaceful main character is relatively new for Gibson, the Christian overtones and sermonizing contained within are surely not. Of course, the last time he made a movie about a man of peace subjected to persecution for his beliefs, he all but skinned Jesus alive in very controversial ways, so this form of persecution is at least easier to watch.

Keeping Desmond from being an overly naive, wholesome and impossibly pure boyish soul is often hard in the first half, as Garfield isn't always given that many more notes to play. However, the strongest notes are struck in moments that show Desmond does have the capacity for violence in him, which is what scares him more than war. As a child of both God and a war ravaged, violent father, Desmond knows full well what he is capable of in both peaceful and less peaceful ways in war, which isn't that far removed from Gibson's own protagonist in The Patriot. Still, Gibson's so-called pacifist in that movie went full blown violent before too long, whereas Desmond went another way.

Even as Gibson finds his footing by the end of the first half, it is hard to argue against the feeling that he appears more at home once the troops get to Okinawa. The fact that it takes graphic war battles to get a movie about a man of peace really going should say something about Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge in general and the contradictions of such a war story in general.

Yet it says something even more that this isn't the usual kind of graphic violence from Gibson.

The obvious comparisons that can and will be made are with Saving Private Ryan instead, especially in the opening attack on Hacksaw Ridge. The sounds, sights, furiously quick brutality and deliberately Hellish landscape put us right in the middle of battle, in ways even Braveheart and We Were Soldiers didn't do. While the fear that Gibson is really glorifying and wallowing in such violence as per usual never truly goes away, these are sequences where terror instead of awe is the dominant emotion inspired here.

When Gibson went ultra-violent in The Passion of the Christ, his methods and the ugly beliefs he reinforced overshadowed every possible message about Jesus Himself, His larger mission and His real accomplishments. Zeroing in on His brutal death could have been used to make a larger point about what Christ went through for us, but for Gibson, it was ultimately just about the violence and those he blamed for starting it. 12 years later, however, Gibson may have finally found a balance in using horrific violence and war to complement a larger story about heroism, humanity, belief and bravery in the heart of darkness, not to completely overshadow and forget about it.

Hacksaw Ridge is really what Passion of the Christ should have been, as the horrors of war and inhumanity work in tandem to strengthen Desmond's impossible, heroic accomplishments in the eye of this terrible storm. It could also be said that it still resembles Passion in dehumanizing the non-Christian enemy, in this case the Japanese, despite lip service paid to Desmond trying to save a few enemy soldiers as well.

But compared to the old Gibson, and compared to how Gibson could have really gone wrong with this story, Hacksaw Ridge is close to Gibson on his best behavior. He does come close to glorifying things in the final charge, and the last image of the film is quite over the top with symbolism, although archival footage of the real Desmond Doss and others later sends the movie out with a much better closer.

As Gibson's long game and approach pays off more in the long run, so does Garfield's, as he carries the full weight of Desmond’s transformation and emergence on the battlefield. Charting his course from a naïve and persecuted boy to the man who stood tallest in the trenches proves to be very rewarding, as he, Desmond and Gibson all wind up overcoming doubters and early warning signs over the full course of the movie.

For Gibson, it is still hard to proclaim all is forgiven and that he is back on top, depending on whether Hacksaw Ridge is really a new direction for him. And in this very particular political age, brushing aside his exact kind of checkered history from a decade ago is an even harder task than usual now, to say nothing of how others like Nate Parker aren’t getting off so lucky and Gibson might anyway.

An imperfect at best vessel like Gibson still brings extra baggage to an imperfect film like Hacksaw Ridge. Yet it may just be that a man with Gibson’s set of skills, background and even demons is the kind needed to tap into this raw horror of war, and is now better equipped to truly show a man of peace lighting the way out of the darkness.

Maybe deep down, this is the same old package from Gibson retold in a more palatable way, while keeping the same love of violence and the same need to convert audiences to Christianity. But with this package, there are real signs that time and distance has done Gibson some good, if only for this one movie. The others sure to come will show if he does have a long lasting and less checkered second act in him, although the second act of Hacksaw Ridge helps lay the blueprint for him to rise again.

Hacksaw Ridge will certainly be a clear alternative to the kiddie-powered Trolls and the PG-13 Marvel romp Doctor Strange when it opens wide against them on Nov. 4.