Hacksaw Ridge and all the images you see in this review are owned by Summit Entertainment
Directed by Mel Gibson
So The Birth of a Nation, while still being directed by terrible person with seemingly no interest in doing the hard work to change that, at least had the benefit of its filmmaker being a new voice with a desperately needed perspective in an industry that had grown pretty monolithic despite the way the world (and their audience) was changing around them. Mel Gibson on the other hand has been around for decades and is already part of that overly white-cis-het culture that needs to be changed (both in Hollywood and everywhere else) which is only compounded by him being a shit bag for WAY longer. Now I’m sure that he struggles with his demons constantly and that those kinds of fights are never easy to win, but no one owes this guy sympathy for those plights considering the harm he’s caused or their money to see his films even if it’s good in its own right. I’m a film critic, so I critique films and all I can do is try to relay what this movie is trying to do, if it succeeds in doing so, and how I reacted to it given the full scope of how and why it was created instead of just on how well they made it. Is this a masterpiece from a deeply disturbed filmmaker, or has the director’s own personal hang-ups dragged down a biopic about a much great man than him? Let’s find out!!
The movie is essentially a biopic of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) whose religious beliefs meant he would not carry weapons or cause direct harm to others, but he still wanted to serve his country and do what he can to help his fellow Americans fighting in the Pacific Rim, so he enlists anyway with the hope of being a medic. Now apparently medics STILL have to carry weapons and get weapons training, but he refuses to do even that much and becomes a target by his commanding officers (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) and fellow recruits who consider this an act of cowardice rather than religious conviction, and the movie takes great pains to explore the suffering he went through to earn the right not to carry a weapon as well as how he got these convictions (his alcoholic father Tom played by Hugo Weaving was a big influence), how this act of rebellion can ruin his life as well as the life of his wife Dorothy (Teresa palmer) and what he does once he’s in the field of battle with no way to protect himself. Does Desmond manage to keep his convictions even when faced with the horrors of battle? Will the rest of his unit learn to respect his convictions once he proves himself out in the field? Is the film drenched in religious symbolism and Jesus allegories? Does a bear shit in the woods? And is Mel Gibson a serial abuser?
Well… this was certainly something. I tend to bump movies up a few points if they find a way to surprise me, and boy did this one do just that. The first half of this movie honestly isn’t much to talk about and it’s where most of problems lie, but that second half? Once we go to war? HOLY… SHIT! If Mel Gibson wasn’t such a shitty human being, I’d be floating his name for some special effects Oscars! Now the obvious comparison here would be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as there’s gonna be lots of people who only remember this movie for its war scenes rather than the drama, but the thing is that Saving Private Ryan, despite having one of the best opening scenes of all time, is still a fantastic movie beyond the bits of wonderfully done action which is not the case here as the story beats are pretty uninspired. There’s plenty to mine here as far as how Mel Gibson chose to film this movie and the unflinching use of violence to make it’s point, but at the end of the day, all that does is cover up for a pretty mediocre plot that doesn’t seem interested in anything other than Mel’s favorite topic; self-sacrifice and salvation through intense physical suffering. Still, the guy knows how to blow shit up REAL good!
Now if it wasn’t obviously already, this movie is basically two films super glued together, so let’s take a look at them individually. The first movie is the biopic that explores his life leading up to the war as well as the trials and tribulations he goes through to get the right to go into battle without a weapon. The thing about this movie, and this part in particular, is that Mel Gibson is VERY much in auteur mode in that his own personal issues shine through in the way he tells this story, and while that might be fascinating to watch play out, it’s still not what I would call deep or even all that impressive. What are the things that Mel Gibson cares about most in his movies? If you guessed anything other than the tragic heroes, you obviously aren’t paying that much attention to his filmography as the only movie he’s made that ISN’T in some way a Jesus allegory was because it was LITERALLY about Jesus. It is no exception here as religious conviction and martyrdom go hand in hand with the hyper masculinity and patriotism that were part of World War 2, both at home and abroad. Now unfortunately, Mel doesn’t seem interested in going THAT deep with it as he clearly has a point of view he wants to push onto the audience, so while I did like that we were getting a story about a pacifist proving that even in war there is room for compassion and healing, I never got the sense that he was interested in portraying Desmond Doss as anything less than a saint himself. Now by virtue of this being BASED ON A TRUE STORY (ugh…), there’s always the chance that any criticism I have about character arcs or storytelling can be at least somewhat excused by what actually happened (the dude does seem like a genuine bad ass and did believe what he did), but I still think Mel could have done something to portray the character as less of a caricature.
On top of Desmond being portrayed in an overtly flattering light, the first half of the movie feels jumpy which is another hallmark of biopics (didn’t he have a brother or something that we were supposed to get back to some point?), and there is way too much tell instead of show as far as Desmond’s beliefs and how he practices. We see his COME TO JESUS MOMENT as a youth (super hammy by the way) and then immediately jump to him as an adult with no further mention of his faith until he has a conversation with his father right before he heads off to basic training. I don’t doubt that he does believe what he does, but I never really got the sense of WHY he believed other than guilt which isn’t what I would call the best way for someone to throw themselves into a religion. Sure, I’m guessing that if you asked Mel, he’d say that guilt is what it’s all about (dude’s been struggling with personal demons his whole life), but for me the portrayal of his resistance to following orders needed badly to confront why he believed so strongly rather than seeing how far he was willing to go for them, and if he wasn’t being entirely honest about his motivations. The best part of the first act though has to be Hugo Weaving as his father who I can only assume is a self-insert character as an alcoholic who’s an evil prick but is framed as a tragic figure. Hugo Weaving sells it though and has some FANTASTIC scenes that go for the sadder side of alcoholism as much as it does the scary and abusive side. Unfortunately, he’s also part of one of the more confusing scenes in the movie which is the trial that Desmond goes through, but I might not have been paying enough attention to understand how Hugo Weaving got what he did to help Desmond in the trial.
So the first half is kind of half-baked that’s held up by solid performances but brought down by some REALLY blunt themes. What about the second half? Well, what is there to say really? After Desmond finally gets the right to go into battle without a weapon, we see just that and Mel Gibson makes it a fucking NIGHTMARE to behold. I don’t know if it puts Saving Private Ryan to shame (that seems to be the clear intent here), but it’s at least on that level as far as bloody and horrifying war scenes go and is really the main reason to go out and see this movie. The titular Hacksaw Ridge is a wonderfully designed location as the soldiers have to scale a cliff just to get there, and when you do it’s a desolate wasteland full of dead bodies and scorched earth from repeated naval strikes and lobbed grenades. The action is chaotic, yet the flow of battle still manages to be coherent due to how well the scenes are shot which does a great job of investing you into the conflict even if victory will come more from luck and the number of bodies to throw at the opposing force rather than through actual tactics or skill. Where it falls a bit flat though and why this movie is not NEARLY as good as Saving Private Ryan is that the war scenes are uncompromisingly patriotic and don’t have anything to balance out the jingoism like Spielberg’s film had. At first, I was going along with it and loving the scenes despite the Japanese being portrayed as one dimensional bad guys; but towards the end the portrayal of our enemies gets REALLY propagandistic what with them falsely surrendering so they can suicide bomb the Americans, and the leader of the Japanese forces (a character we’ve never actually SEEN before this point) committing Harakiri while the act is inter-cut with someone fetching Desmond’s bible. See, this is one of the many reasons that Spielberg is such a great filmmaker as the Germans in Saving Private Ryan were similarly terrifying in every combat scene, but he took the time to give them humanity which this film sorely lacks for the Japanese soldiers.
Look, there’s no doubt that the Desmond Doss was a hero considering he saved over seventy five soldiers in that battle, and a story about finding a way to serve your country without hurting others (while also not demonizing those who DO take up arms) is an important one to tell. The problem is that, despite Mel Gibson’s clear desire to make this movie (and his film making chops being a rather solid match for the material), his personal baggage is clear for the world to see and somewhat undercuts the power of the story when Gibson’s own politics and hang-ups become inseparable from the story itself due to the way he chooses to tell it. Along with Birth of a Nation, it’s definitely a fascinating movie due to who’s behind the camera, but also like that movie it’s pretty damn flawed and could have used a steadier hand to balance out the intentions of the director. I actually still recommend seeing this movie as the war scenes are THAT well done, but I wouldn’t object to anyone skipping this because of who directed it; and not just because of what a shit show of a human being he is in his personal life. A filmmaker cannot help but put a bit of themselves into their movies, and Gibson does it more so than others which can make it hard to sit through some of his movies for many out there. Hell, if you just don’t want to give the prick your money, wait until it shows up in a used DVD store or a pawn shop and check it out then.
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