Muscular, visceral, yet distinctly old-fashioned, Mel Gibson’s bravura return to the director’s chair is simply superb. Hacksaw Ridge is tour de force filmmaking; dextrously balancing character design, emotional weight, and cinematic spectacle, in addition to paying dignified respect to perhaps the most fascinating story of heroism you’ve never heard of.
Andrew Garfield delivers a career-best (and quite rightly Academy Award-nominated) performance as Desmond Doss, an American pacifist medic in World War II who is subjected to heinous torment and mistreatment due to his beliefs. He is devoted to his country and platoon, but outright refuses to use or carry a firearm, or any weapon throughout the process. He wishes to save lives, not take them, and this philosophy is viewed as cowardice and selfish. Doss, alongside his comrades from Fort Jackson in South Carolina, are assigned to the 77th Infantry Division, and head into the Battle of Okinawa. The United States troops are attempting to overthrow “Hacksaw Ridge” – the code name for Maeda Escarpment – by eliminating the rebel Japanese soldiers stationed upon the cliff face. Doss was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and services beyond the line of duty, in which he single-handedly saved the lives of 75 wounded infantrymen.
When watching a war drama, it is extremely easy to forget that these events actually took place; that thousands upon thousands of fathers, husbands, and sons from across the globe gave their lives for the liberty and freedom of their respective nations. Hacksaw Ridge never lets you forgot the reality and severity of the horrors it conveys, and does so with masterful intent. For a text with distinctly religious and nationalist undertones, not once does Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s water-tight script ever border on preaching. Instead it finds deft humanity and compassion inside a landscape in which any sense of hope or love feels entirely removed. War is unrelenting, undignified, merciless, and the remarkably staged action set pieces feel as such. Gibson’s aggressively charged lens plays a beautiful counterpart to the eloquent musings of Doss, as he scrambles through miles of decapitated corpses and filth, frantically searching for another soul to preserve. “Please Lord, help me get one more,” he mutters through rasping breath.
Gibson’s violence is violent. In fact, Hacksaw Ridge could provide the most shell-shocking depictions of mass battlefield slaughter in a Hollywood studio film to date. Faces are riddled with rounds, body parts are ferociously removed by grenades and bayonets, men scream with agony as they are torched with flamethrowers. The seemingly endless fight is immeasurably wretched, and downright terrifying. A particular sequence in which the troops are using a heavy-set smoke as cover, for only the haze to lift and reveal their position to the Japanese is nerve-shredding, as is an underground encounter as Doss accidentally drops into an enemy bunker; instant death lurking behind every shadowed corner. But despite the film being extremely gruesome, never does it feel gratuitous. The implications of combat are unspeakable, and through Gibson’s alarming-staged savagery is real beauty and honesty. The creative choice to remove the orchestral score as the initial battle scene erupts is a masterstroke; the sounds of steel bullets ripping through iron helmets, crunching earth below the feet of a hundred men: it all feels so palpably real.
Before we reach the warzone – which arrives firmly at the crux of the second act – our time is spent dwelling in cells, courtrooms, and training drills as Doss fights to defend his views. The texture of characterisation in these scenes significantly pay off as we reach the mounting rifles upon Maeda Escarpment; we establish potent and profound relationships with these men, and have underpinned what makes them tick and react. Watching them ascend to almost certain death stirs something inside, and gives validity to the impact the viewer feels when things start taking a downward turn. Throughout the process, Doss marries a beautiful nurse, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), following an admirably sweet relationship build-up, but it is a very different story for his family foundations, which are built upon the regret and mourning of World War I, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. His father, Tom (an impeccable Hugo Weaving), is emotionally and psychologically scarred by his past, and looks to the bottle for mental soothing. However this has massive implications upon his wife and two boys, who are frequently on the receiving end of his erratic and hateful behaviour. Doss’ disgust at the thought of injuring another has been hardened into his psyche after many painful years at his hands.
Hacksaw Ridge benefits from a collection of impressive supporting performances, even from the likes of Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington, who play Sergeant and Captain respectively, offering additional layering to Doss’ construction, and even lending some laughs. Watching Vaughn’s drill operator teardown men with his ludicrous insults and heightened barking is fiendishly funny stuff. It is however the aforementioned Garfield who is the backbone of the project. His central performance is every bit sincere as it is complex; a heartfelt, purposeful, and devoted role which asks much of his physicality as well as dialogue delivery, and he provides the goods in spades. Posture and body language speak volumes throughout, as we see a shy and repressed young man build into an iron-willed and selfless warrior. A tremendous screen turn indeed.
The Crown composer Rupert Gregson-Williams crafts a majestic soundscape for Gibson, implementing moments of grand orchestral to sublime slow-motion imagery; giving contextual contrast to the actions and reactions of war. Because at its very heart, that’s what this film is all about: the balance between valour and vigour; horror and humanity. This frenetically crafted, cinematically enveloping work delivers a hard-hitting, relentless portrait of suffering and sacrifice which is elevated by an impossible story of hope, spirit, and love. A rightful Best Picture nominee it most certainly is.
Hacksaw Ridge previews in UK cinemas today (Thursday, 26th January), and opens on wide release on Friday, 27th January.