Mel Gibson directs his first movie in a decade and—surprise—the sucker bleeds. It bleeds a lot.
As a director, Gibson stands alongside the likes of Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg and Peter Jackson as a master of body horror. Yes, I will go so far as to say his latest, Hacksaw Ridge, is an all out horror film in parts. His depiction of a World War II battle makes George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead look like Zootopia.
The movie tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a battlefield medic and the first of three conscientious objectors in U.S. warfare history to receive the Medal of Honor. The dude refused to pick up a gun, or any weapon for that matter, during his time served in Okinawa. That didn’t stop him from braving the battlefields with comrades, eventually saving the lives of 75 men during horrendously bloody battles.
Much of the film’s first half is devoted to Doss’s backstory, a troubled childhood with his alcoholic World War I veteran father (a good Hugo Weaving) and an eventual romance with future wife Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). The early goings in the film are handled well, although they are a little schmaltzy at times. Gibson isn’t at his best when he’s handling the romance stuff.
When Doss goes to boot camp and faces off against commanding officers like Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), the film starts to get very interesting. Due to his Seventh Day Adventist beliefs, Doss refuses to pick up a rifle, and this gets him into all sorts of jams on the training field and in the barracks. After a detour for a court-martial hearing, Doss and his infantry mates are deployed to Japan.
When the action switches to the scaling of the Maeda Escarpment a.k.a. Hacksaw Ridge, the movie becomes perhaps the most grueling war movie experience ever made. Gibson, as he’s proven before with Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ (a.k.a. When Jesus Got His Ass Kicked) and Apocalypto, doesn’t shy away from movie violence, and this one is a major splatterfest. Yes, it’s honorable and majestic in its treatment of the Doss character for the most part, but it’s not the easiest film to watch.
I saw this with a matinee crowd filled with many folks who were alive at the time of Doss’s actual feats. I’ve never heard so many screams and audible measures of discomfort in a movie screening before. So, there’s your warning. Hacksaw Ridge is violent enough to earn an NC-17. Actually, I’m surprised it didn’t get that rating.
Garfield does his best screen work to date as Doss, a man who deserves the almost saint-like portrayal he gets in this movie. Garfield is the total embodiment of goodness here, and he pulls off every moment he spends on screen, including the corny ones. Vince Vaughn has dabbled in dramatic departures from his usual comedies before, but never as effectively as he does here as a drill sergeant who can’t believe what he’s seeing and hearing in regards to Doss.
Sam Worthington also does career-best work as Captain Glover, portrayed in the film as Doss’s biggest foe within the military until they share a battlefield together. Palmer gets a real chance to show her star power, and she capitalizes on that chance by also delivering a career-best performance.
So, yes, it’s a testament to Gibson’s powers as a director that he gets a lot of career-best performances out of his cast. As for his staging of the battle scenes, they aren’t just bloody. They are absolutely terrifying. Gibson is trying to get across the message that Doss and soldiers like him went through the very worst hell on earth, and he succeeds in a colossal way.
No doubt, Gibson is a full-blown nut and, as it turns out, the perfect director to tell this amazing story. Hacksaw Ridge isn’t a total masterpiece, but it has passages that qualify it as one of the more essential war films ever made. Not bad for a guy who took a 10-year break from the director’s chair after, well, you know.