World War II is a time in our history that has been explored on the silver screen in a wide variety of ways. There are still so many narratives to be explored during this time, although many of them fail to depict that individual's perspective in a way that is engaging and unique. It has been ten years since Mel Gibson has been behind the camera, but he has returned to the director's chair. He has become known for his graphic narratives in Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ. Now, he takes a stab at a war film that incorporates a great deal of religion.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) felt the overwhelming need to serve in the army, as many of his peers were fighting for their country while he was safe at home. However, his deep religious values prohibited him from taking a life. Refusing to even touch a weapon, he ultimately became an army medic to heal, rather than kill. Based on the courageous true story, he became the first Conscientious Objector in American history to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
The opening scene of Hacksaw Ridge presents us with hard-hitting brutality that begins by bringing us back sixteen years in the past to when Doss was a young boy. He's exposed to domestic violence that instills principles that would enforce his values for the rest of his life. Before enlisting in the war, the audience gets to see how he was at home with his family. It quickly becomes clear that Doss is presented less as a real human being, and more as a caricature without any real personal flaws to overcome. He's presented with some truly horrifying struggles, but it never truly feels as if we get to know the man as he was. This first act is the film's weakest segment, as we're presented with a fast-developing romance that feels completely out of place from the rest of the film. Once Doss leaves to serve his duty, the love interest only exists as a plot device to move specific scenes forward. It's simply a dull introduction that doesn't do much to set up for what is to come.
If you've ever seen a boot camp scene in a film, then you know exactly what to expect from the second act. We're introduced to the men that Doss will fight alongside, although they nearly all of them are presented as one-dimensional characters. We never come to know most of them, although Smitty (Luke Bracey) is one soldier that the audience gets to learn a bit more about on the battlefield. The more that we come to understand the dynamics between the soldiers, the more compelling the film becomes. Instead of being a passive viewer, it begins to feel as if we're being more included in the cinematic experience; it's just unfortunate that it takes as long as it does to do so.
War isn't pretty, and Hacksaw Ridge brings the truth in that statement to the silver screen without any hesitation. As soon as the Battle of Okinawa begins, Gibson doesn't wait a single moment more to begin displaying the brutality that war brings. Bullets tear bodies apart and bombs send limbs flying, as Doss is immediately rushing from soldier to soldier in an attempt to save as many lives as possible. You're guaranteed to be sitting on the edge of your seat in a way that is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. However, Gibson's anti-war message through a religious perspective is thwarted by his extreme focus on the carnage. Slow-motion shots and all are utilized to glorify the very same violence that his narrative rejects; it feels a bit contradictory.
There's a rich character study in Hacksaw Ridge that occasionally shows its teeth, although the screenplay rarely focuses on it. This places a lot of pressure on the performers to deliver necessary nuances to elevate the story to compensate. The best way to describe Andrew Garfield's performance is cheesy. His southern accent is noticeably lacking, which lessens the feature's impact on multiple occasions. While he physically fits the part, he doesn't quite manage to deliver the emotional intensity required. Surprisingly, performances from his fellow soldiers are perhaps the most effective, as they manage to bring a sense of humanity. However, it's doubtful that many audiences will be able to find Vince Vaughn convincing as Sergeant Howell. For those of us that still have difficulty believing him outside of a comedic role, this won't make you think any different. There are hints of good performances in here, but the leading ones aren't very impactful.
Despite all of the film's issues, Mel Gibson's visual design is incredibly impressive. He maintains a good use of cinematography and framing throughout the entire duration. He has become known for his strong use of violence in cinema, which is once again proven here. These are some of the best choreographed war scenes in recent time, as he truly places the audience in the middle of this battle. The sound design certainly contributes to this, as we're presented with an assault on the ears that comes from all directions. Bullets wiz from one speaker to the next and explosions send shockwaves through the theater. Those who are searching for a more technical experience will certainly get that from the production value.
Even with all of its problems, Mel Gibson's return to the director's seat is a two-hour World War II film that almost never drags after its first act. There are hints of an exceptional character study, although the screenplay never capitalizes on this. While themes and messages are clearly established, the characters need a lot of work. The film's extreme stance on religion is sure to draw a faith-driven crowd, although its high level of brutality will attract a different audience. Gibson clearly put a lot of work into the gruesome combat sequences, which ultimately feel contradictory to the film's core. Even so, these scenes are incredibly well-executed; it's just a shame that it couldn't all come together into something that feels more cohesive. Hacksaw Ridge falls to war movie cliches and a confused message. Rent it.