Stars: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughan, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington | Written by Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan | Directed by Mel Gibson
Andrew Garfield goes to Japan to face a powerful enemy, and finds his Christian faith and pacifist opposition tested to the limit in a realm of violent conflict. But enough about Martin Scorsese’s Silence. This is Hacksaw Ridge, the directorial resurrection of the notorious Mel Gibson. It’s a safe and solid return, one which hits the standard war movie beats and only really distinguishes itself as a result of the incredible true story at its core.
Garfield is Desmond Doss, a Virginia boy whose father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is an alcoholic brute, lost in the mire of PTSD following his service in the Great War. Tom doesn’t want his sons to go to war. Especially not the smart, gentle one. But Des is drawn by duty, so he ships off to Fort Jackson, where he meets his new band of brothers and is confronted by the brutal drill instructor Sgt Howell (Vince Vaughan).
Here’s where the film’s central hook sinks in. Doss calls himself a “conscientious collaborator”: He wants to be a field medic but, owing to the domestic violence and fear of God absorbed throughout his Seventh-day Adventist upbringing, he refuses to touch a gun. He is ridiculed by everyone in the barracks, of course, but his wish is ultimately granted and he is allowed to stride into battle effectively butt naked.
The action then shifts to Okinawa, where the company must charge the titular ridge. This involves climbing a flimsy rope ladder into an apocalyptic no man’s land. The third act of the movie is virtually one extended battle sequence, as men are mown down by machine gun fire and tossed like ragdolls by enemy grenades. And there is Doss, scampering among the dead, searching for the ones who are weeping. “One more,” is his mantra – “one more.”
The true story behind Hacksaw Ridge translates to a cavalcade of clichés on the screen. The young buck heading to war, eager and naive; the angelic, adoring dame left at home; the raging drill sergeant who’ll learn to respect the outsider; the clean-cut replacements watching the bloodied survivors trucking back from the front line; the gentle stroke to close the eyes of the dead. A complete stranger to subtlety, its most interesting themes are always verbalised. Like we can’t work it out for ourselves, Doss needs to tell us: “My values are under attack!”
Gibson’s direction is a matter of extremes. The Virginia scenes are hopelessly cheesy and dramatically lightweight. Clint Eastwood levels of clunkiness. It’s only once the gunplay starts that Gibson finds his feet. He is an accomplished director of pain and suffering, and the chaos of Okinawa is scary and impactful – for a while, anyway. The initial naval bombardment of the ridge is terrifying, like some classical painting of Hell, complemented by a Penderecki-like choir of haunted angels.
The following fight scenes are exhausting. Accurate, maybe, but it becomes numbing. There’s a video game sensibility to the action, thanks to its repetitive nature and the cutscene-standard sketching of the minor characters. We even get a stealth “level”, and an on-rails shooter bit where a character is dragged on a stretcher, gunning down the chasing Japanese.
Garfield plays the pre-war Doss as an adorable goofball, and the actor has the skill to juxtapose this against Doss’s bravery in war without it seeming like a different character entirely. Other performances are more variable. Vaughan has an impressively brutish presence, but he’s basically playing a stand-up comic version of Full Metal Jacket’s Sgt Hartman. Elsewhere, the performance to convince us that Sam Worthington is an actor remains elusive. The best support comes from Weaving, who is moving in the role of a man stuck in a PTSD echochamber but who cannot find the exit. Weaving needed more and he needed a better script.
Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score is a horrible Zimmer-lite shrieking nothingness, constantly soaring on rote chords modified with Vangelis synth pads. It really doesn’t enhance the journeyman human drama and it frankly undermines the action, which is otherwise decently directed and edited.
Catholic imagery is kept to a minimum, although Gibson can’t resist entirely: we do get a scene where Doss is lifted from the mount through white clouds, bathed in golden light. But mostly Gibson is playing it safe with Hacksaw Ridge. It is an extraordinary story housed in an ordinary war film, where no cliché goes unused. In its linear storytelling and its one-sided depictions, it’s a throwback in modern clothing, its balletic violence digitally perfected but its amateur dramatics beyond rescue.
Hacksaw Ridge opens in cinemas on 27th January.