Mel Gibson has returned to direct a film about war, faith, and male heroism. Yes, we have seen this from him many times before, but it has been at least a decade since his last directorial entry. That means that even if his directing style hasn’t changed, the ten-year gap between films makes Hacksaw Ridge feel less standard because of the pure nostalgia. That doesn’t pardon Gibson’s simplistic narrative style or his expected visual choices, but the familiarity of Gibson’s approach proves to be a reminder that he may still have a few good films left in him. Whether he will become worthy of our attention is yet to be seen. After a decade-long exile to the shadows of B-movie obscurity, Hacksaw Ridge feels like a competent execution by Gibson as he flexes a cinematic muscle that may have come close to atrophying from being unused.
This based-on-true-events film takes the much-treaded route of previous hero worship films. Co-writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan each deliver their greatest strength to the film, but it ends up being nowhere near enough to keep it from the pitfalls of predictability. The majority of Schenkkan’s screenplays are developed for television, and the schmaltzy, heavy-handed approach to emotional development feels less like a sharpshooting exercise and more like sentimental shotgun pointed at the audience. The generic, scattered shot is meant to be spread to affect the greatest amount of people possible with little care for accuracy or developing genuine, more realistic emotions for both the characters and the audience. Hacksaw Ridge has the same affectivity as a primetime Lifetime film.
Knight, who wrote last year’s desiccated film The Water Diviner, develops another tale with a confused morality and even more disappointing development of characters. This film is based on the true story of hero Desmond Doss, who can proudly say that he saved more lives than he took during one of the most gruesome wars in American History. He deserves every bit of honor and glory this film has to offer him, but he ends up being owed more than the film can deliver. The same religion that Doss is accurately representing is the one that is rationalizing murder. Doss is held up as a beacon for his heroic acts on the battlefield, but the morality of the film is so skewed that it ends up praising Doss while also justifying the continued killing of enemy combatants.
The film struggles with its own identity when it feels like it’s heading into anti-war ideology, but quickly contradicts it by the also praised actions of the other soldiers and the near demonic depictions of the Japanese soldiers. The film is full of thought-out scenes with religious symbolism including baptism and parallels between Doss’ struggle and the martyrdom of Jesus, but by showing the opposing side as entities of evil and not as human beings, the message of the importance of human life is completely lost. That leaves Doss being depicted as nothing more than an inspiration for the rest of his fellow soldiers to continue slaughtering other humans instead of heeding his true message of pacifism.
Aside from the character of Doss, played by the talented Andrew Garfield, every character feels like a shell. Garfield does his best with the complicated character that is being developed and manages to add authenticity and complexity to Doss. The film is full of good performances, especially a surprisingly strong performance from Vince Vaughn, but the characters are explored enough to give them a full dimension of depth. That forces characters played by Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, and Sam Worthington to fade into the background or become altogether ignored by the story and forgotten about as it moves forward without them. This is where Mel Gibson’s experience saves an otherwise underdeveloped and morally befuddled film.
War is a gruesome and bloody affair. There is a reason it claims so many lives and an even greater reason why so many of the soldiers who survive spend the rest of their lives battling the PTSD from it. Gibson is not one to shy away from showing the gory brutality of war and religion as The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto are proof of. His realistic depiction of the gravity and carnage of war help to cover up the rest of the film’s shortcomings. There is no warning or slow escalation to the war scenes. Almost as soon as the characters arrive on the scene, the battle is thrust upon us and the film is all the better for it. This unrestrained approach Gibson is well-known for helps to highlight the anti-war message the film should have had, even if the narrative developments don’t.
Hacksaw Ridge inadvertently personifies the confusion of war by showcasing its internal thematic struggles. The two sides are constantly battling it out while the story and the characters become the victims. To our surprise, a hero emerges in the form of Mel Gibson to save this film from itself with his sure-handed direction and clear vision. Gibson proves he can still win the battles but is he ready to take on the war?