Hacksaw RidgeReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/17/16 12:31:01
(Worth A Look)
For better or worse, "Hacksaw Ridge" does not mess around; its filmmakers know what they want to do with their true story of an non-violent war hero, and much of the movie feels as conventional as its subject is not. On the other hand, that direct nature becomes a real asset once it gets to the battlefield, as director Mel Gibson, freed to tell the story with action more than words, manages to make one of the more bloody and visceral battle scenes put to film something impressively focused.The man in question is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a young man in rural Virginia who, at the start of World War II, was registered as a conscientious objector due to his pacifist religious beliefs. For most people, seeing how serving in the prior war had left his father (Hugo Weaving) an alcoholic, abusive shell of a man might be enough to reinforce that, but helping treat a man injured in an accident triggers his desire to serve, though as a medic. As one might imagine, his refusal to even touch a weapon, his refusal to even touch a weapon does not exactly go over well in basic training, with unit captain Glover (Sam Worthington) suggesting Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) do all he can to make Doss quit.
Given that the film is named after a battle rather than the training camp and opens with a flash-forward to Okinawa, the opening arc of the story is a path that is never in any particular doubt. There's the nice girl, the group of recruits given introductions just memorable enough that you can tell them apart but not so much that they're likely to steal the movie from Doss, the colorful moments during training that will almost certainly be referenced later, and, finally, the court-martial that gives Doss a chance to lay why he's doing this thing out there. That it's formulaic isn't a particularly bad thing; the military, small-town life, and religion all have patterns and rituals that would require explanation if broken. What's important is that while there are some bumps - two flashbacks hinting at reasons why Doss may recoil from touching a weapon for personal reasons rather than just religious principle seems a bit much may be a little much - this part of the film is capably handled. The filmmakers avoid drawing familiar things out, for the most part, and make a good call in portraying Desmond Doss as kind of an odd duck with some kind of unreasonable expectations about how people will respond to him rather than just a man unfairly persecuted for his religious convictions. It's not fancy, and some viewers will mentally be checking things off a list, but it's good enough.
It's when Doss and his fellow soldiers reach Okinawa and climb up the bluff of the title and onto the battlefield that things start getting impressive. Gibson and his team quickly establish the area as something out of a horror movie, with the bodies from the last push missing limbs, covered with maggots, and attracting rats; it's already a charnel house. That vibe continues as fog limits visibility and death comes out of nowhere, soaring guts all over the place, and the filmmakers pile more and more on. It's throwing the audience into the deep end of what a combat medic's job actually is - mostly tourniquets and morphine - with the occasional flamethrower seeming to spurt hellfire that folks the screen and moments that imply that the only way to survive war is to embrace the monstrous insanity. More than a simple ante-raiser on just how gruesome a serious war movie can get, these images serve as a challenge to Doss's essential goodness and world view, an unending mass seemingly destined to swallow him up.
It's a meticulously staged and presented sequence. A bunch of recognition for that should go to Mic Rodgers, credited as both the stunt co-ordination and second unit direction; though there is probably a great deal of visual effects work, both obvious and invisible, in those sequences, it is still a lot of moving parts going at once. It's also fantastically edited, with Gibson and editor John Gilbert not initially focusing entirely on Doss, letting the audience see him as a small part of a major battle but also not losing track of him. That also means balancing his supportive heroism with the more traditional, violent action around him. It's more than a bit impolitic that the Japanese soldiers are portrayed as treacherous and almost alien to the Americans fighting them, but doing so highlights both that it can be impractical for everyone to live by his laudable values and that everyone had a contribution to make and value, rather than simply elevating his form of service over others.
When the big, chaotic action ends and the focus again falls more squarely on Andrew Garfield's performance as Doss than before, it does deflate a bit. It's not really on Garfield - no matter how many ways a man can find to pray to save just one more, repetition will beat the nuance out of it. He and his castmates often seem to be playing their characters as the version you'd get after asking someone to tell you their story, a little more homespun than reality with their endearing qualities cranked up. At best, it works in terms of recalling the performances of the movies made when this one takes place - Theresa Palmer's Dorothy would fit into that style easily enough, though Vince Vaughn is something of a mismatch as the drill sergeant: As much as he's a big, theoretically intimidating guy who can sharpen his tongue, wisecracking comes more naturally, and Gibson softens his harshness too early. On the positive side, there's Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths as Desmond's parents; Weaving is utterly convincing as a man still shell-shocked twenty-five years after his own war experience, while Griffiths always finds the right note as the wife who holds the family together without making the abused Bertha just a martyr at any point.There's a different sort of horror to Weaving's scenes than to the battlefield, but they both make what often feels like a by-the-numbers war movie into one that had room for both the thrills of patriotic heroism and utter disdain for the destructiveness of war. It doesn't vault it to the top echelon of war films, but it makes that parts that work are exceptional enough to make it well worthy of attention.
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