Leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be revisiting and reviewing all the Best Picture nominees. I’ll assess them on their own before bringing all the nominees together and breaking down which is truly worthy of the golden statue.
Today’s review is Mel Gibson World War II true-story, Hacksaw Ridge.
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer
Plot: WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot. (via IMDB)
Review: Hacksaw Ridge is a movie that is constantly doing battle with itself. From start to finish, from scene to scene, and even occasionally within a single frame, its battling a number of identities. The first, and arguably biggest, battle it faces is the simple fact that it is a Mel Gibson film. Gibson has proven himself to be a incredibly gifted, if not controversial director, but the terrible things he’s said and done in his personal life put the breaks on his career in front of or behind the camera. While I can normally separate the artist and the art from each other, I’d be lying if I said his presence didn’t loom large over this film.
Given Gibson’s past, the subject nature of the film is a bold choice for his comeback. Gibson’s religious beliefs are well-known and I would very much call this a religious film, but it manages to avoid the pitfalls of the horrendous films in that genre, such as God’s Not Dead. Whereas those films alienate anyone who doesn’t hold the same faith, Gibson is wise enough not to preach. Doss is on another plain compared to the other characters, but the non-religious characters are not evil, in fact some are heroes. In a Mel Gibson, religious film, the film comes first. He is interested in telling one man’s story of his convictions and beliefs. However, while it’s a fascinating character, brought to life wonderfully by Andrew Garfield, the movie Gibson wants to make is at odds with Doss’ story.
For a movie about the courage in not picking up a weapon, it relishes the blood, bullets and explosions. Before you give me some hokum about Gibson showing the horrors of war, when a character charges into battle using a corpse as a shield, it’s hard not to think he’s just having fun. The film’s message is only further lost with the depiction of the Japanese as nothing but bloodthirsty animals. The soldiers are so vehement that their enemies are pure evil, I was sure there would be a moment showing the humanity of the Japanese. No such moment comes. But that’s the movie Gibson wants to make, and he makes it damn well. The visuals of the battle sequences and the blending or war/horror/action genres is like watching a kid playing in a sandbox. These sequences really elevate the film to another level, injecting the captivating but familiar story with a great deal of energy and proving that Gibson can direct an action scene as well as anyone out there. The relative small scale of the film makes it all the more impressive as the battle atop Hacksaw is ranks among the greatest cinematic war scenes of all time. If George Miller wants to give up the Mad Max franchise, Gibson should be the obvious choice.
The pure madness of the battles are much needed because without them, the film is a bit of a mess. Again, Doss is a compelling character and Garfield carries the film with his performance, but he and Gibson are only in a sea of bad writing and tired cliches. You will not find an inspired moment of storytelling in the whole movie and the first two acts just feel lifted from other movies, but not good ones. By the time Doss is introduced to his fellow soldiers, I thought I was watching a parody. Each given just enough distinguishable characteristics to tell them apart, they are one-line spouting cartoon (you’re god damn right there’s a Smitty!) Beyond Garfield, the performances don’t have much of a chance. Vince Vaughn is completely unconvincing as a belligerent drill sergeant who says nothing you haven’t heard in a dozen other movies. Teresa Palmer gets little to do as the worried wife Doss leaves at home. Few other genuine characters exist, save for Hugo Weaving as Doss’ alcoholic veteran father. He is engrossing as the complex character that is ultimately left unfulfilled by the script.
It’s a shame that all the pieces of the film couldn’t come together in a more satisfying way. From the wildly underdeveloped story to the clash between the themes and the imagery, Hacksaw Ridge has a lot of issues. However, the talents of Gibson and Garfield keep the whole thing afloat and the third act is a pure example of gonzo filmmaking. I could see myself revisiting the film over again just for those sequences. Here’s hoping Gibson heads back behind the camera soon with a better script under his arm.