REVIEW: “Hacksaw Ridge”

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You might say Hollywood’s selective forgiveness hasn’t fully extended to Mel Gibson. While the transgressions of many stars have been hypocritically swept under the rug, Gibson has remained a Hollywood pariah due to his vile alcohol-related incidents of nearly ten years ago. Despite apologies, treatments, and the support of close friends like Jodie Foster, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robert Downey, Jr., it has been tough road back into movies for Gibson. But the early responses to his new film “Hacksaw Ridge” may be a sign that Tinseltown is finally giving him a second chance.

Hollywood has tried to tell the incredible story of Desmond Doss for decades. Screen rights to the story have swapped hands numerous times and multiple producers have attempted to get the project off the ground. Mel Gibson was first approached to direct the film in 2004. He would turn down the offer twice before accepting some ten years later. “Hacksaw Ridge” would be Gibson’s first directed movie since 2006’s “Apocalypto”.

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The story of Desmond Doss is astonishing. In April of 1942 Doss enlisted in the Army but refused to carry a weapon due to his deeply held religious convictions. Despite early criticisms and persecution, Doss worked his way up to Corporal and was a field medic during the bloody Battle of Okinawa. He became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.

Andrew Garfield plays Doss and is tasked with carrying the bulk of the film on his shoulders. Garfield is an actor who has always flown a bit under the radar despite some strong performances. In “Hacksaw Ridge” he brings the audience through several portions of Doss’s life. We see his early life at home and his tumultuous relationship with his war-scarred, alcoholic father (played with bruising realism by Hugo Weaving in some of the year’s best supporting work). We watch his courtship with a local nurse named Dorothy (played by a radiant and warm Teresa Palmer). The next stop is boot camp where Doss’s convictions raises the ire of his unit especially his superiors Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Capt. Glover (Sam Worthington).

And then there is the final act which is dedicated to Doss’s heroism at Okinawa where some of the most ferocious fighting of World War 2 took place. From the first shot fired, the film presents the battlefield violence vividly and in a manner reminiscent of the D-Day sequence in “Saving Private Ryan”. Mel Gibson is no stranger to depicting the brutal nature of combat and it is especially effective here considering the harsh reality it’s based on. Make no mistake, it’s bloody, unflinching, and harrowing.

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Some have found Gibson’s intense war violence at odds with his story of a pacifist. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, the battle scenes are brutal and graphic but not without reason. You see, in the middle of the blood, the bullets, and the dizzying madness of war is Desmond Doss who personifies grace in the face of violence, life in a sea of death. Gibson contrasts the horrors of war with the heroism of Doss in such a way as to make his protagonist’s light shine even brighter. There is no glorification of war. These soldiers are in a picture of hell. The only light for them and the audience is Desmond Doss. It’s all incredibly effective.

“Hacksaw Ridge” was made with a fairly modest $40 million budget (quite modest compared to the $165 million price tag for the week’s other big release, Marvel’s second tier “Doctor Strange”). But as you would expect from Gibson, the movie looks like a billion bucks. The superbly shot battle scenes aside, Gibson’s traditionalist sensibilities show up in how he shoots everything else which is a perfect fit for this particular film. It’s easy to get lost in the period he visualizes.

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But I have to get back to Garfield whose work in this film should catch a few eyes. His accent may require an adjustment, but he fully commits to his character and his performance is full of authenticity and earnestness. The movie simply wouldn’t work without him. And it certainly helps to have great supporting work especially from Hugo Weaving (Oscar nomination perhaps). I also loved Palmer who at times seems plucked right out of a 1940’s movie. Worthington is solid and Vaughan surprised me. There are also nice performances from Luke Bracey as the unit’s alpha male and Rachel Griffiths as Doss’s mother.

The story of Desmond Doss is both incredible and inspirational. “Hacksaw Ridge” tells the story well and never wavers from its central theme of believing in and staying true to your convictions even in the face of intense adversity. It’s never preachy in its presentations of one man’s beliefs, but it also never wavers in portraying them for what they are. And that’s what you expect from Mel Gibson  – a filmmaker of great vision and conviction who may have finally found the forgiveness he deserves. I hope so. “Hacksaw Ridge” shows he still has an amazing gift and an insight into filmmaking that many in the business simply do not possess.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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28 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Hacksaw Ridge”

  1. I’m really excited to see this one. I’m a huge fan of Mel Gibson as an artist, and I’ve heard nothing but great things about this film. I’ll be sure to take some time to see it within the next couple of days!

    • Definitely check it out. I will say it will be easy for some people to pick at it for certain things. But for me, in terms of strong cinematic storytelling, this is Mel Gibson at his creative finest. It’s one of my favorites of the year so far.

  2. Looking forward to seeing this movie . . . wait, let me rephrase that. I”m psychologically preparing myself for this movie. Haha! Fully aware of Mel Gibson’s proclivities here, I think Hacksaw Ridge could be the one movie I see this year that will top the brutality of The Birth of a Nation. I am loving that Andrew Garfield is not limiting himself to certain roles. From Spider-man to a war hero/pacifist? What a turn!

    • Anxious to hear you thoughts. I actually enjoy Gibson as filmmaker but do recognize his tendencies. He makes a specific kind of film and is very committed to that. As for this one, I really had no issue handling the blood but I can see where some would. I do think it’s effective in forming the contrasts I mentioned. And my hat is off to Garfield. Such a committed performance.

      • I’m getting kind of psyched out about the whole thing. The same thing happened to me when I started reading reviews about the horrors to be witnessed in 12 Years a Slave. I am almost getting neurotic about the whole thing. Lol. I’m hearing that the opening few minutes of the film, and actually you touch on it too, kind of sort of set the tone. Basically if it’s bad right up front I’ll have a better chance of lasting. And violence usually isn’t a big deal for me, either. Heck, I’ve embraced those Saw films, but in those movies the violence is so OTT it’s cartoonish and has no meaning.

      • The opening isn’t super fierce (as I recall), but it’s a really good start. The final third is where it really hits in full force. Very true about the Saw violence. It’s kinda hard to put much value in it.

  3. I wrote this off because the trailers looked so melodramatic, but I think I’m going to have to bite it and see the film after reading all these wonderful reviews like yours.

    • I loved it Brittani. There is some melodrama but never too much. And the story of Desmond Doss itself is absolutely fascinating. The movie stays on point and tells his story very well. I was really caught up in it.

      • I loved it. There’s a real classic style of storytelling that I appreciated. But there is also an incredible true story at the core and the movie apparently stays true to it. I’m hoping to see it again before it leaves theaters.

  4. I’m ready to see it. It seems like Mel Gibson is doing a lot of work lately in front of and behind the camera. I’ve always liked him and hope he finds redemption from the industry here. I’m sure I’ll watch the film. Nice review, Keith.

  5. This is so stirring. One of the best of the year, Garfield should probably get serious Best Actor talk, but I’m equally if not more surprised at how well oft criticized guys Worthington, Vaughn, and Bracey did. They all added a lot!

    I feel that Gibson does ever so closely skirt the line of overkill here (and some jump scare scenes are used liberally), but war isn’t pretty. I feel like this level of violence is more warranted here than say, Apocalypto. Great review Keith.

    • Man it’s so good to read your response to this film. It has been a bit sad to hear so little being said about this film. I’m with you, one of my favorites of the year. I also agree on the cast especially Garfield. I just hope more people will give it a look.

    • I gotta say I never struggled with sentimentalism. I have heard others who did though. And thanks for the link. I’ll definitely check out your review.

  6. Pingback: Top 10 movies of 2016? You choose. | Global News

  7. Just came out here – and I remember reading this review a few months back. I’ve only just seen the film and I have a few problems with it. I need to get my head around the second half but the first was a mass of cliches and despite the unusual scenario I found it very dull; I know time is tight in any movie but I get so sick of seeing relationships go from first date to marriage in the blink of an eye (*clicks virtual fingers*), and the boot camp and courtroom scenes seemed like watered down versions of those contained in Full Metal Jacket and A Few Good Men to me, plus quite a bit cribbed from Band of Brothers and The Pacific (though there are worse things to crib from)! It kicks in to gear of course, and it’s quite a spectacle, but I dunno…I’m going to have to think it through. I mean, the way the Japanese are portrayed compared to Letters from Iwo Jima…wow. I know this is a film about an American soldier but that doesn’t stop Gibson from trying to have an Iwo Jima-style moment near the end when the focus shifts to the opposition, that I don’t feel is earned at all. I need to give it some more thought, but anyway, good to read your take on it again and sorry for rambling!!!

    • Thanks for the comments. I’m really glad you gave it a look. For me it is a movie of two clashing perspectives. I think the first half was intentionally innocent and idyllic. There are brief bursts that hint to the real world but for the most part Doss stays within that bubble. That bubble completely pops once that first bullet is fired. Reality hits in full force and the question becomes how will Doss deal with it. I see it as a film of contrasts both the beautiful and abrasive. And I see what you’re saying about the Japanese, but it didn’t bother me mainly because this was a story from one side and the fighting in Iwo Jima was intensely brutal (I actually have some now deceased relatives who fought there). But I will definitely keep that in mind when I see it again. I think it is due out on blu-ray in three weeks.

      • Good points – cheers. I have to give this one more thought. I’m not sure Gibson has much subtlety as a director. He’s like Tom Jones when he sings – it’s all dialled up to 11! And I don’t mean that completely as an insult…you can see in Braveheart, Passion of the Christ and this film among others that his style can be very effective.

      • Oh I 100% agree with that. He does approach things like a blunt force instrument. I don’t think he’ll ever be remembered for his subtlety.LOL

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