“It’s not killing in a war.”
Hacksaw Ridge is explosive, affecting, gruesome, and most of all manipulative. We expect these hallmarks from a Mel Gibson film. He’s no friend of nuance; in fact he’s rather confrontational, even prodding, a master of pushing one of two buttons at any given moment. But on his quest to fetishize violence and benevolent grace in all of his pictures, he’s unable to find a proper combination, giving us one or the other and never both concurrently. And while his efforts behind the camera certainly alway make us feel something, the merit this time around can only be found and counted in half measures. Hacksaw Ridge loses its worthwhile heroism through its sheer unwillingness to be about anything other than heroism. How the film defines this trait is both individually scrupulous and ideologically scant.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is the kind of young man you’d expect to meet in World War II era Virginia. Cordial, proper, courteous. He’s also curious, especially upon meeting nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) in the hospital’s blood donation ward. If he ever had any doubt that there was no place like home, Dorothy is able to put that to rest. They court, get hitched, and then Desmond chooses to enlist because the thought of sitting at home while others fight the good fight in his place seems unbearable to him. Each of these events tend to occur that abruptly too. Hacksaw Ridge, similar to Unbroken two years prior, wastefully spends time in a labored and workmanlike opening act that ultimately takes away from time potentially well spent elsewhere. Seeing Desmond grow up in the backwoods of the Blue Ridge Mountains has one sole purpose. Following an incident where he nearly kills his brother, Desmond kneels before a religious painting, eyes glued to the 7th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Why is that important? Well, as a devout Seventh-day Adventist, he refuses to kill the enemy, let alone hold a weapon. That’s God’s law, and fellow brothers in arms are able to temporarily compromise their moral stance for the greater nationalistic good. Kill or be killed is the motto. He’s beat up in the barracks and screamed at by Seargent Howell (Vince Vaughn, who I couldn’t believe for a second. Try as he might, we’ve just seem him do this same shtick in too many comedies to feel militaristic.) Thankfully Garfield takes his generalized character and performs the role with earnest principal. A lesser actor would have led Desmond into sanctimony. Doss’ act of uncompromising courage defies description as a man whose Bible is his word, his bond, and his weapon. I wish this was the film’s focus before the last act and shared Doss’ egalitarian ideals for the entire duration.
It’s hard for me to get over the beginning’s pitfalls, especially considering that a later, similarly patterned scene is already in place which could have been tweaked to fulfill the big thematic through line. Then there are the character issues. Doss’ brother first goes off to war against their parents’ guidance. You expect more to come from this, but he leaves the dinner table and we never hear about him again. Dorothy kisses her man through the bus window, and from then on she’s only see in a small matte photo tucked inside Desmond’s Bible. There’s little flow to Hacksaw Ridge, a film that feels oddly combative and at war against itself at times. Perhaps the culprit could be Gibson’s objection to tone. Hacksaw Ridge plays like a juggler aiming for and missing the jugular. There’s backwoods youth à la Wild America. Corny romance elements like The Notebook. Barbaric war scenes reminiscent and sometimes even copying All Quiet on the Western Front. Each chapter gets a chance to shine all before free-falling squarely into the palms of Gibson’s hands.
“Murder is the worst sin of all.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5