Hacksaw Ridge marks the return of Mel Gibson to the director's chair after a long leave of absence. His last directorial effort was Apocalypto in 2006, following his stellar work with The Passion of the Christ in 2004 and of course the Oscar winning Braveheart in 1995. Right off the bat, it has to be said that Gibson's latest film Hackshaw Ridge is not for the faint of heart. It is brutal, bloody and at times leaves you feeling like you are part of the World War II experience. The movie, primarily filmed in Bringelly just on the south-western outskirts of Sydney, follows the true story of World War II hero Desmond Doss who was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour. This particular award is the highest military honour in the United States, and is only awarded to individuals for personal acts of valour above and beyond the call of duty. Doss was a Seventh day Adventist, who profoundly believed that violence and killing was wrong. Yet in spite of these beliefs he felt compelled to enlist in the military following the tragic bombing of Pearl Harbour. As a compromise he served as an army medic on the front line, saving 75 men in the process without firing or carrying a gun. The truly amazing story features an all-star cast which includes the likes of Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington.
Hackshaw Ridge is undeniably a movie of two halves. The first act of the film is relatively lighthearted, spending much of it's time establishing its characters and primarily Desmond Doss's code of morality. While the second act resembles a training montage much like the many military movies audiences have seen before, it does carry some significant emotional weight. Doss spends the majority of his basic training being consistently objectified and persecuted. However once the third act rolls around, audience's will get quite a shock to the system as Doss and his compatriots ascend Hacksaw Ridge and are thrust into the Battle of Okinawa. This particular battle is known for being the bloodiest in the Pacific during World War II, and the way that Gibson and his crew convey it on screen is about as real as it gets. It is also undeniably unlike any battle audiences would have seen before on screen. The duty of conveying the high level of realism in the film was left up to the special effects team led by Dan Oliver and Jabin Dickins, as well as the stellar visual effects department. Working in conjunction with director Mel Gibson, they have done an utterly fabulous job. Together they construct a world that is incredibly horrific to be a part of. Gibson depicts war in a refreshingly realistic way, taking audiences to the ground level and leaving no prisoners in the process.
The war sequences are immensely brutal, cruel and vindictive, as the Battle of Okinawa is played out to full effect. The utter intensity of the scenes unbelievably surpass the likes of films such as Saving Private Ryan. This is a most amazing feat, especially considering the film's relatively modest budget. During the initial combat sequences, audiences will feel as though they are actually on the front line, which becomes quite a disconcerting experience. Rational viewers are also guaranteed to feel uncomfortable, leaving them questioning the relevance and necessity of war. These sequences will come as a surprise to most audiences, especially considering the relatively optimistic first act and the tame marketing campaign.
Gibson's vision definitely doesn't glorify war, but does portray the World War II warriors from a compassionate perspective. In short, the combat scenes are definitely not for the faint-hearted. Following the initial period of brutality, the battle sequences do ease in their intensity. While the initial scenes are necessary to capture a segment of history, the tone does shift from his dark inception. For the most part, this is actually a good thing. It makes the experience of war on screen slightly more bearable for audiences to watch, and also eases the overall ratings trajectory that the film was destined for. If the movie did maintain its initial level of brutality, it would have undoubtedly scored a R-rating in Australia and a NC-17 rating in the U.S. If there is a criticism to be made, it's that the third act eventually does go down the conventional route of glorifying the American military's existence, rather than expressing the true reality of war and the fact that there are no winners. It also has to be said that the first act overall lacks narrative drive, which is a problem that doesn't resolve until Teresa Palmer makes her first appearance on screen.
Andrew Garfield makes a most admirable effort playing the role of war hero Desmond Doss. His portrayal clearly demonstrates his immense understanding of the character, all while maintaining an element of humility that is rare in actors today. The performance is also extremely respectful, with an attention to detail that is quite amazing. Garfield emulates the real Desmond Doss to near perfection, incorporating nuances to his accent in addition to delivering unique mannerisms and postures that all work extremely well.
However, there are nonverbal characteristics to his performance that are well below what audiences would expect from a character being thrust into such a horrific experience. These are elements that director Mel Gibson would have undeniably brought to the table, especially during his acting prime. Many of these characteristics are clearly displayed in films such as Gallipoli and Braveheart. It is surprising that these acting traits didn't rub off on Garfield. Perhaps this is a further indication that Mel Gibson was one of a kind. Then again, it could be more a reflection of the limited time allocated to the shooting schedule, restricting attention to detail and performance. Subtle elements such as this would have made the whole film experience all the more emotionally engrossing and believable. In addition to this, it would have undeniably made the film an Oscar favourite rather than just an Oscar contender.
Teresa Palmer is incredibly brilliant as Desmond Doss's object of affection Dorothy Schutte. She holds her own remarkably well and is the shining light in the film. This is quite amazing especially considering her relative obscurity from the majority of the final two acts, which take place primarily within the army and Okinawa. Her presence is infectious and her performance is genuine and delightful, which reflects wonderfully well on the legacy of Dorothy Schutte. Palmer has had an extremely successful year so far, and her cinematic future definitely looking bright.
Hugo Weaving is exceptional in the role of Desmond's alcoholic war veteran father Tom Doss. There is a deep emotional anguish displayed within the character that could have only been brought to the table by Weaving's utterly brilliant acting prowess. Weaving clearly depicts a highly conflicted individual, traumatised by his World War I experience, as he comes to terms with the relevancy of his existence. Rachel Griffiths plays a worthy counterpart to Weaving, depicting Desmond's highly religious and physically abused mother Bertha Doss. While her screen time is used sparingly, her presence is essential to the overall narrative, revealing key elements that create Desmond's code of morality.
Vince Vaughn is surprisingly well suited to the role of Sergeant Howell, as he conjures elements of stereotypical drill sergeants from many of the military movies audiences would have seen before. He does add his own unique and straight-faced humour to the role, in addition to many redeeming qualities torwards the end of his character arc. Don't be surprised to see him in many more non-comedic character actor roles in the near future.
After what seems like a long hiatus from mainstream cinema, Sam Worthington makes a welcome return as Captain Glover. His presence is unassuming yet formidable, as he plays one of the primary opponents to Desmond Doss's conscience. As a counterpart to Vince Vaughn's Sergeant Howell, the pair work quite well together, remaining relatable in spite being at odds with Desmond's progressive and yet extremely rational viewpoint. Worthington's self-revelations toward the end of Captain Glover's character arc also provide for an enjoyable viewing experience, especially in contrast to the plethora of horrific combat scenes.
In summary, Hacksaw Ridge is a must see in the cinema. Gibson's biographical film coveys a deep message of compassion and levity against the horrific backdrop of war and turmoil. It is a truly heroic story and may even have audiences believing in miracles once more. Above all, it embodies the moral tale of maintaining your convictions and beliefs, in spite of all odds and adversity. However, it has to be said that Gibson's latest effort does lack the sophistication and emotional engrossment of his films Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. But overall it is a worthy return by Mel Gibson to the director's seat.