4.5 out of 5 stars.
It has been ten years since Mel Gibson’s last directorial effort, “Apocalypto,” was released to mixed reviews. But controversial figure though he may be, Gibson makes a soaring comeback with his new film, “Hacksaw Ridge,” based on the true story of World War II hero Desmond Doss.
In the opening of the film we see Desmond as a child. He almost accidentally kills his brother Hal with a brick when they’re play-fighting, prompting him to start taking the Sixth Commandment—thou shalt not kill—very seriously. Years later, young adult Desmond (Andrew Garfield) starts learning about medicine from a nurse he falls in love with, named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). When the majority of the men in town, including Hal, start enlisting in the army to fight in World War II, Desmond does so as well, wanting to be a doctor and help save lives—but not kill. His refusal to even take up a gun for his own defense lands him in hot water with his commanders, who try to have him discharged for psychiatric reasons. His fellow soldiers shun him and beat him up, and he is ultimately arrested for insubordination and put on trial before he is allowed to go out into the field.
The first and second halves of this movie are very different, but both very good. The first half of the movie plays like an inspirational underdog story/courtroom drama, with Desmond’s optimism and interactions with the other soldiers often lightening the mood, while his persistence in standing for what he believes in, no matter what the consequences are, are admirable to the point that he starts to win over tough commanding officer, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). The second half of the film entirely revolves around Desmond and his infantry unit trying to take the Maeda Escarpment—nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge—from Japanese forces in the Battle of Okinawa. This part of the film is relentlessly brutal, depicting some of the most realistic and graphic scenes of war put on film in recent years, possibly ever. Their protracted first assault is messy and bloody; a Japanese counterattack the next morning drives off most of the Americans, leaving the rest of the soldiers either dead or severely injured. Except for Desmond, who decides to take the opportunity to do what he came there to do, and begins collecting and sending injuring men down the ridge, much to the surprise of those guards waiting below—all the while dodging Japanese soldiers without a weapon on him. According to the end credits, Desmond saved a total of 75 men, and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Garfield continues to be one of our generation’s most promising young actors, giving the best performance of his career as Desmond. He is relentlessly, infectiously optimistic, a twinkle in his eyes and a slight grin playing about his features for much of the first half of the film. But even when he is faced with adversity by the army taking affront to his denial to carry a gun, and when thrown into the horrors of war in the second half of the film, that optimism carries over in a more subtle way as he hangs on to the hope that everything will turn out okay, that he will be able to do his duty and saves lives. Garfield easily assumes Desmond’s southern accent and mannerisms, and his portrayal could win him a much deserved Oscar nomination.
But the rest of the cast is great too, with the real surprise being Vince Vaughn as Sergeant Howell. Howell is brash and loud (something Vaughn is great at playing), but he has a heart, something we see early on in his interactions with Desmond, whose persistence he obviously admires. The role gives Vaughn the opportunity to really flex his comedy muscles, something that his recent films that actually are comedies have never given him the right material to do so with. Luke Bracey is good as Smitty, a fellow soldier who initially despises Desmond for his refusal to fight but later, like everyone else, comes to respect him for it, and turns out to be an important character in that he is a major influence in Desmond pushing on through the battle. Hugo Weaving also makes a memorable turn as Desmond’s father Tom, who has never been the same since his participation in the first World War, which left most of his friends dead and the trauma from which turned him into an abusive alcoholic. Palmer, meanwhile, is a bright light through it all; she holds her own as the film’s one major female character, and has charming chemistry with Garfield.
As mentioned before, Gibson doesn’t hold anything back with the war scenes, keeping the camera close to the characters and placing the audience right in the middle of it. If he had handled the rest of the film any differently, it might have detracted too much from the main story; as it is, Gibson balances out the actual scenes of war with scenes showing the emotional stress battle has on the soldiers, from Desmond to his fellow soldiers to even Desmond’s father Tom. While the frantic fighting may overtake the film momentarily, ultimately Desmond and his incredible feats are what will really leave viewers applauding.
With “Hacksaw Ridge,” Gibson has told more than just a war story. It’s a story about family, love, and faith, and the precedence of those values over hate and violence make this not only Gibson’s best film in recent memory, but one of the best war movies recently as well.
Runtime: 139 minutes. Rated R.