Mel Gibson, he of the religiously verbose variety, has been embroiled in a very public war with Hollywood – and himself – over the last decade. The director of Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalpyto became persona non grata when audio of his now famous anti-Semitic rant, followed by threatening messages made to his then-girlfriend Oksana Gregorieva, went public. Ever since, Gibson’s been trying to claw his way back into the good graces of the mainstream and with the double shot of Blood Father and Hacksaw Ridge, may have just found some footing.
Hacksaw Ridge, for its flaws, is almost therapeutic. For Mel that is. As if his psychiatric recommended making it as an exercise to A.) chill the fuck out and B.) win back fans scorned by his very public, very personal outbursts. It’s Gibson’s attempt to reconcile his religious passion with his near reckless knack for bloodletting; the crossroads between gory frivolity and stubborn faith. The result is an emotionally charged ode to those willing to stand behind their convictions under fire. Which I imagine Mr. Gibson sees a bit of in himself. Though it, like its central character – a patriot who volunteers to serve in WWII but refuses to so much as touch a weapon – is a bit tin-eared to how the world actually works. The irony.
That’s because with Hacksaw Ridge, Mel wants to have his cake and eat it too. He needs the sanguine and the sermon. The armed soldiers with appendages turned to spaghetti and meatballs and the bible thumping prayer huddles. In an unintentionally humorous moment, Sam Worthington (who it should be mentioned still cannot act worth a damn) hacks, “We’re waiting for Private Doss to finish praying for us!” It’s an odd marriage – rapacious bloodlust and fervent faith – and that unnatural amalgamation takes shape in the messiness that is Hacksaw Ridge’s gushing narrative flow.
Just as it’s hard to reconcile Gibson’s professed Christian faith to his extreme verbal violence so too can the internal battle in Hacksaw Ridge prove difficult to harmonize. The narrative – which celebrates the war’s most prolific pacifist – is fundamentally at odds with Gibson’s over-the-top sensibilities. This is a man who spent over two hours turning Jesus’ tale into torture porn the likes of Eli Roth and here he is at the feet of passivity and cheek-turning. Like with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the cacophony of Gibson’s battles are chop suey incarnate.
The gore flies as liberally as Michael Moore. Arms and legs dangle on puppet strings or are severed entirely and turned to obstacles for other soldiers to vomit upon. The consummate dread is palpable as a kick in the nuts as a platoon of fresh soldiers, and by extension the audience, mount the titular Hacksaw Ridge in the Battle of Okinawa. What waits upon said hill is evil itself and that evil has a taste for hemogoblins. Or is that hemoglobin? Gibson and writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan even take the time to examine the difference between arteries and veins (one spurts, one bleeds) so when the time comes, there’s no doubt when the old artery’s been knicked. And knick Gibson does. Knick and knick again.
Mel pours all the the fiery, wide-eyed passion that makes him such a watchable presence onscreen into the war scenes and they – occasionally questionable CG aside – are all the more harrowing for it. More than once, I found myself shrieking, uncomfortably laughing or shying away from the bulging mass of blood and bodies onscreen. When it’s working, Hacksaw Ridge is grade-A war cinema. But before all that commendably captured onscreen ultra-violence, we’re trapped in what seems an eternity of getting theres. We get the ol’ ’16 Years Earlier’ treatment after a tease of the bloodshed and carnage to come where we meet a young Desmond Doss (played by a suitably impassioned but doe-eyed and arguably precious Andrew Garfield) as a boy. Competitive to a fault, he learns the value of life when he “accidentally” clubs his brother in the face with a brick. Fast forward to the post-Pearl Harbor-era and Desmond is as “Aw Shucks” an American country boy as can be. Shit-eating grin and all.
After striking up a romantic interest with local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Terera Palmer as effortlessly seductive as ever in a role that pays few dividends), Desmond enlists but refuses to drop his governing principal that killing is a sin and so decides he will be a field medic, no matter the risk or refusal by those above him. When pressured by superiors to take up arms, Desmond stays his principals to the chagrin of his commanding officers and fellow enlistees. Beatings and court marshals and Vince Vaughn crackin’ beanpole jokes ensue.
Gibson invests too much time coloring in the one-dimensional Doss – a hero, absolutely, but one with about as much depth and complexity as Captain America in The First Avenger. In doing so, he misses out on the opportunity to invest us in the rest of the company. As his compatriots are eventually turned to shreds, piles of weeping plasma and hammered bone, there is a gut-sinking feeling conjured up by Gibson’s imagery but it lacks the emotional gutting it could have had were we to actually care about these characters. They are but fodder for a film that demands many targets.
When at one point our devout devotee drops his bible in the line of fire, he tweaks. As in, he’s convulsing and shrieking more than the guy next to him whose legs have been turned into a pile of Chef Boyardee rubble tweaks. Though Gibson makes tribute to the power of faith, there’s an almost drunken quality to Doss’ penitence and though it leaves us admiring him as a human being and as a hero, it still leaves us thinking him a bit on the looney side. Ironically, much like the man and maker behind the film itself.
CONCLUSION: Mel Gibson’s latest is a flawed but nonetheless stirring tribute to an uncommon war hero in Desmond Doss. Though Gibson’s vampiric need for blood seems an odd fit to sing the praises of a prolific pacifist, his eye for war-time carnage makes for some triumphant, if hard to watch, war sequences even when they are sandwiched in old-timey storytelling.