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One hates to start a review on such a churlish note, but none the less I feel it’s necessary to do so. It’s very interesting that Mel Gibson’s return to the Hollywood fold comes at a time when anti-Semitism, what with Trump’s major-domo Steve Bannon representing serious alt right traction, has become gradually mainstreamed. Not that this plays a role in Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson’s first movie as a director in a decade, at least not per se, but it was something that lingered on my mind for the film’s first hour or so.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, one of the few people to receive the medal of honour without firing a single shot. A pacifist, Doss saw combat in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War, where he had a remarkable record as a medic.
A great idea for a film, but unfortunately Mel has to waste a good hour exploring the origins of Doss’ pacifism. This gives aul’ Mel a good chance to wax lyrical about the joys of Christ. Admittedly he stops short of heaping on the Catholicism, presumably because his tribe were semi openly colluding with fascism during this period, but the underlying message is that if we all believed just a little bit more then maybe wars would never actually break out. Not content with spending the first hour dwelling on this, Gibson shoehorns in a love story, showing us how Doss met the love of his life. We all know that Gibson is a romantic at heart, but portraying on-screen romance is, to put it simply, not his forte. In this sense, Hacksaw Ridge reminded me somewhat of The Deerhunter, with its tortuously long first act exploring themes that aren’t half as profound or interesting as the film thinks it is. However, much like a mirror reflection of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket things pick up considerably when our heroes leave basic training for the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge.
Say what you will about Gibson, and Christ knows I’ll spend a good chunk of this review doing that, but the man has got an innate understanding of the language of cinema. It’s not surprising that his best film, and indeed one of the best films of all time, Apocalypto, is effectively a silent film that tells its story entirely through visual language. In his understanding of this aspect of filmmaking, Gibson is a poet. According to the film’s production designer, Barry Robison, the scenes at Hacksaw Ridge were filmed in a hundred-meter square cow pasture, with a lot of smoke and mirrors used to disguise this fact. This makes the movie’s battle sequences all the more remarkable. Avoiding CGI aside from a few obvious instances, Gibson manages to bring to the screen a real sense of organised chaos, a feeling of visual heft and oomph that you can almost smell and reach out and touch.
In contrast to the vast majority of today’s action films these sequences are edited very smoothly, rarely leaving the viewer disorientated. It’s fitting that the film’s sound mixers and editor have all received Academy Awards nominations this year as this is one of the most immersive war films I’ve seen in a very long time. While I’d disagree with Gibson’s director nomination on the grounds that at least half this film isn’t very good, the battle scenes are up there with the dance sequences in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land in terms of how ingenious the choreography is.
Gibson has a reputation as perhaps not being a great “actor’s director” and this is on full display in Hacksaw Ridge. Vince Vaughan ended up giving the most entertaining performance for me, purely because portraying a drill sergeant pushes him out of his comfort zone and he seems to be having a great time doing it. Andrew Garfield has received a lot of critical buzz for this film, including an Academy Award nomination for best actor, which only really exhibits how weak that category is this year.
The film gives the roots of Doss’ pacifism as being a childhood incident where he nearly kills his brother with a brick, the guilt of which forced him to find God. I’ll admit that in the twenty minutes that followed, I was convinced that Garfield was the brother that had received the blow to the head, such is the nature of his grinning, one face, one note and one dimensional performance. His main touchstone seems to be Forrest Gump, a fact not helped by Gibson’s tone deaf ear for dialogue; during one of the film’s most chaotic battle scenes Doss assures an armless soldier, he is pulling from the carnage of war, that he’ll be “right as rain” as soon as the doctors get him.
Hacksaw Ridge is a deeply flawed film that occasional exudes moments of extreme brilliance. While its battle scenes deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible and with the best sound system available, the mawkish themes and dialogue, that Gibson insists on returning to throughout, prevent it from being the comeback that some have described it as being. While I have no doubt that Gibson’s ability to tell a great story hasn’t diminished in the slightest, Hacksaw Ridge is too weighed down by aspects he hopes the Academy will like to be a true redemption.