Mel Gibson has always been a controversial figure. Gibson’s films certainly have faith based messages, a topic he clearly feels strongly about. His directorial efforts have included the Oscar winner Braveheart and the ever controversial The Passion of the Christ. Now, ten years after his most recent directorial effort, Apocolypto, Gibson returns to the big screen with his World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge. Gibson has received critical acclaim for his filmography as a director. Hacksaw Ridge may just be his best body of work yet. Filled with insanely powerful performances and extreme attention to detail, the film will be considered among the best of the year. It is a gritty and harrowing piece of cinema that will earn it’s director and star the highest of praise.
Based on the incredible true story Hacksaw Ridge stars Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving and Teresa Palmer. Garfield (The Social Network) plays Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector to World War II who wants to serve but based on his faith, refuses to fire a gun. After enlisting, he encounters a platoon of men who see him as a coward. Yet, when a group of soldiers attempt to take Hacksaw Ridge in order to turn the tide for the war in the Pacific, Doss saves the lives of 75 men without firing a single bullet.
Hacksaw Ridge features some of the most realistically shot battle scenes on film since Saving Private Ryan. Immersion is key in Gibson’s directing here. The sound design is incredible and the visuals are truly outstanding and intense. Gibson chooses interesting shots to add a different side to this film. Overhead, first person-like shots of weapons being fired and grisly tracking shots of lost limbs and entrails. However, it is not bloody for the sake of being bloody, even though at times it is very gory and occasionally disturbing. The violence and carnage depicted here serves a brilliant paradox to the first 30 to 45 minutes of this film.
We spend the first parts of Hacksaw Ridge taking a journey with Desmond that is powered by his faith and morality. Desmond is of pure and noble intentions although the minute he and his fellow soldiers climb to the top of Hacksaw Ridge, there is seemingly no morality left in the world. Desmond, and the audience, experience chaos first hand, and all the fluffy feel good stuff is immediately wiped away when you see the horror on full display in a battlefield. In a sense, Desmond is able to bring morality and goodness to a scenario in which those two things can’t exist.
Along with that, in the first act, we see Doss strike up his relationship with a nurse named Dorothy (Palmer). Serving as the other side of the that paradox is their cheesy romance. Gibson doesn’t shy away from the usual tropes in this instance. For the most part that works. It is Garfield’s commitment to his character that makes it work and not so much Palmer. She is fine in the film, but her character ultimately becomes forgettable in the midst of all the other side characters whose stories are more interesting. In fact, aside from a few mentions or photos, we rarely see Dorothy if at all as the film draws to a close. She essentially was a throw away character after spending time developing her love and willingness to support Desmond when no one would.
Vaughn, Worthington and Luke Bracey are actually all terrific in the film. For Vaughn, not only is it a departure from his usual roles, it is his most well rounded performance to date. Worthington and Bracey have always been largely forgettable. Bracey, who played Johnny Utah in that Point Break remake we won’t talk about, is great. His character (along with most of the characters in the film) complete their arcs in a fairly predictable manner. But Gibson is able to bring a certain depth to their personas that we in the end feel a connection to them. Hugo Weaving is also a standout as Desmond’s alcoholic and abusive father. Some of the side character acting in the film is very cliche at points but again, it all works because of the actors’ commitment.
Gibson has crafted an immersive, gritty and powerful story of faith and violence. Moreover, it is a story of staying true to your convictions. Hacksaw Ridge is a portrait and tribute to a man who displayed great courage in the face of tremendous adversity. The fact that this is a true story, is what makes it even more extraordinary than one could imagine. Gibson most importantly, honors his subject matter skillfully thanks to his fearless approach to sailing this ship. It is Mel Gibson’s greatest film as a director to date. We all love an underdog story, and this is about as good as it gets in that regard. Hacksaw Ridge is a moving piece of cinema sure to find its place in history as a landmark of the genre.