Ten years after his last directorial outing, Apocalypto, we get another offering from Mel Gibson. Controversial in Hollywood for offensive statements, he has been starring in smaller films but absent from the director’s chair for quite some time. I won’t lie, it’s kind of good to see him back there after seeing his latest offering – Hacksaw Ridge.
I was not a fan of Apocalypto, for the most part finding it a mixed bag but ultimately something I would prefer not to revisit. I was also not a fan of The Passion of the Christ, the message lost for me in the overt violence of the whole thing. Gibson is, to me, a source of confusion because while he is a masterful director and knows how to put together a film I find he gets lost in his own ideation and desire to plug religious views. His movies are beautiful to look at but inconsistent and too on-the-nose for my taste.
Enter Hacksaw Ridge. I grew up in a Seventh-Day Adventist community and due to that the excitement surrounding this release was palpable among my friends and family who still adhere staunchly to the faith. Desmond Doss, the character this film revolves around, is the religion’s god of war, their fighter who healed instead of killed. I have been hearing his story, reading his book, and listening to his name be dropped since I was old enough to for memories and this film was something that I was interested to see despite my lapsed and dissolved faith. As a child and even a teenager the discussions on Desmond Doss sounded more like 1940’s war propaganda than anything real, the man painted as Captain America (minus the fighting technique) and war painted as something that created a hero.
This film paints a different picture.
Early on it leans heavily on his youth, his childhood, and his father. The story has been altered a bit but overall we get a fantastic performance from Hugo Weaving (in a dinner scene that might leave you in tears) and after Andrew Garfield settles into his accent he is charming and his faith is more endearing than obnoxiously shoved to the forefront, as Gibson is known to use as a storytelling technique. We see why he has a fear of violence and guns and rather than being plugged as anti-war or anti-gun he is simply a human being who developed a discomfort with aggression and gunfire due personal history. We see this thread follow him throughout the film and his belief is never mixed up with his faith, instead the two existing as separate entities that jive with one another but also with those around him once they begin to see who he is.
Let’s talk about those scenes for a bit: the violence portrayed in this film is a harsh contrast to the faith of Doss’s character. Gibson has finally struck a balance between the gore and brutality he loves portraying and the faith he preaches at anyone who will listen, the film able to land right between the two for most of it and not let one overtake the other. As Doss crawls through the battlefield, begging his god to let him save one more life, we are surrounded by the vicious nature of war. Severed limbs, intestines, arms, men missing their eyes, Gibson holds nothing back from this portrayal and this is so crucial of a balance with the message he wants you to hear. People we have become endeared to don’t make it, Japanese soldiers are discussed with angry hatred all while being humanized in small moments. Gibson has finally found peace and in this he can put disturbing visuals on the screen without them feeling gratuitous or excessive.
Garfield’s performance carries the film, along with that of Vince Vaughan, Hugo Weaving, and Teresa Palmer as the charming Dorothy Shutte (soon to be Dorothy Doss). All other members of the cast fall behind, particularly Sam Worthington who once again merely exists rather than bringing anything special to the table. The film riding on these few performances works, the main four leading the charges into battle and romance and even humor (yes, this movie is even funny in its first half and impressively so).
I have nitpicks with the last five minutes of footage that Gibson included in the film, the scene that leads to the ending. It is where he loses his balance, forgets what he has done the whole film, and aims for lazy symbolic imagery and swelling strings as he builds to a slow-motion climax. Other than this we have a wonderful two-or-three-minute segment of interviews with Doss, Sergeant Howell (in the film portrayed by Vince Vaughan, and Harold Doss. This ending does not take away from the film overall and the interview clips are quite powerful, but Gibson’s footage at the end is a downer.
I don’t know if I would call this Gibson’s best directorial outing, but it is his most pleasing and balanced. There’s something for almost everybody here, and while it has issues the film is a success. Andrew Garfield needs a win after his turn as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man films a few years back and I think this is it. A thoroughly well-done film by almost everyone involved.