Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is just a good old fashioned country boy enjoying life in rural Virginia. The thing is it’s 1942 and it’s the height of the Second World War, so wanting to do his bit Doss enlists as a military medic. He leaves behind his mum (Rachel Griffiths), his father (Hugo Weaving) and his bride to be Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) to embark on his training and do the right thing. There is a bit of a sticking point though, due to his religious beliefs Doss is a strict pacifist and refuses to carry a weapon. What follows is a battle with the Army, his comrades and of course the enemy.
Who would have thought that Mel Gibson would be back making a major movie? There were points in the last few years where it looked as though Mel was well and truly over. Hacksaw Ridge is definitely a resurgence for Mel Gibson and while it may have all of the hallmarks of his previous directorial efforts, it’s also showing us that he can do something a little bit different.
On the surface, and indeed if you watch the trailer, then it would appear that this is a war movie in the traditional sense of the word. Complete with all of the mud, blood, and bombs that would accompany something like Saving Private Ryan. Although Hacksaw Ridge is at its heart a war film, that’s not all that it is. Right at the centre of the film, amidst a rather large dose of explosion and gore, is a really interesting character study. Doss is a man with a clear and certain internal moral compass but he’s also driven by the burning desire to serve his country and possibly save some lives instead of taking them. Andrew Garfield does a really good job of portraying the conflict within Doss, and makes what could be difficultt to understand feel incredibly relatable.
The film reminded me a little of Full Metal Jacket in that it’s split into two (although arguably three) chunks. There’s the first act that’s all about life at home with the Doss family, and this almost feels like some kind of made-for-TV, Channel 5, melodrama. Everything is almost a little too corny and Desmond Doss played with a little bit too much ‘gosh, shucks’ country charm. The middle section resembles something like Full Metal Jacket’s opening training sequence. We’re introduced to a variety of military recruit staples, like the clever one, the bully one, the one who thinks they’re a ladies man. There’s also Vince Vaughan doing some of his best work in recent years as the horrible drill sergeant, Sgt Howell. Sam Worthington is Captain Glover, Doss’ superior who just doesn’t understand and wants to get rid of him. As with Vaughan, Sam Worthington is pulling out some of his best work in years and it seems he might just be able to act after all. The final act, goes full on Saving Private Ryan, as we get thrust into the battle face first and soon you are covered, head-to-toe, in mud and blood.
The first two section are not really what I would expect from Mel Gibson, the final act definitely was. As with Braveheart, Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto the camera really does linger on some of the violence. There’s really no points where Gibson shies away from the darker, gorier moments of battle. I found this a little bit at odds with the main message of the film. While on the one hand the film, and its protagonist, does a really effective job of explaining the position on violence but then the other hand starts waving and pointing at some cool explosions. Don’t get me wrong I think it’s a well made and entertaining film but I found the central message to be confusing.
I liked Hacksaw Ridge quite a lot, it’s based on a really interesting story true story that I’d never have known existed without the film. Andrew Garfield does an excellent job of conveying the conflict and conviction within Doss, while making him very relatable. I could have lived with a little less of the country charm at the beginning and I wouldn’t have been adverse to fewer lingering, leering shots of extreme violence. But that aside it was a really well-made film with an interesting story to tell, while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Saving Private Ryan not much really does.