Hacksaw Ridge (Summit Entertainment, R)

Hacksaw Ridge gets an A+ for action and a C for just about everything else.

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When it comes to aestheticizing violence, no one does it quite as well as Mel Gibson. The battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge, his new biopic about Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss, are truly something to see, combining a determination to show the harsh realities of combat with an equally powerful determination to portray that combat as lyrical and beautiful. The rest of the film is not nearly as strong, however, hampered by an on-the-nose script by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight and an odd choppiness in the non-combat scenes suggesting that they deserve no more than perfunctory attention from the director because only sissies care about things like believable, in-depth characters. So Hacksaw Ridge gets an A+ for action and a C for just about everything else, and your interest in seeing it will depend largely on your priorities as a filmgoer.

Andrew Garfield brings absolute commitment to the role of Doss, a conscientious objector who served as an Army medic and was credited with saving 75 lives during the Battle of Okinawa. Hacksaw Ridge was an escarpment occupied by the Japanese, who had created fortified positions atop it, as well as numerous tunnels and caves from which they could attack. As portrayed in this film, the fighting atop this escarpment combined the worst aspects of World War I trench warfare with the horrors reaped by modern weaponry, and the casualty count was high. When Doss’ company retreats (by climbing down rope netting, the only way to get up or down the sheer cliff), he remained on the battlefield, braving enemy fire to retrieve bodies of wounded soldiers and lowering them by a rope to the American troops waiting below.

The script provides plenty of backstory on Doss, planting lots of breadcrumbs that will be recalled in later scenes (Chekhov’s gun, in this case, includes a tourniquet and a bowline knot). Multiple explanations are provided for why Doss refuses to carry a gun in combat, beginning with the fact that he was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist family. In case that was not enough, we are given two other explanations: As a boy, Doss seriously hurt his brother by hitting him with a brick, and as a young adult, he once held a gun on his father (Hugo Weaving) to make him stop beating on his mother (a criminally underutilized Rachel Griffiths). This raises the question of whether Doss would have preferred to let his mother get beaten up once again by her alcoholic husband or if violence by some other means (fists, for instance) is less reprehensible than gun violence.

It’s no surprise, given that this is a Mel Gibson film, that it’s all about the guys. Next to Doss himself, his father Tome gets the most screen time of any civilian, but even Weaving can’t make sense of the character’s contradictions (one obvious point: absolute prohibitions of violence don’t seem to apply in domestic sphere). Teresa Palmer does her best as Doss’ love interest, Dorothy Schutte, but like Doss’ mother, she exists only in relationship to the male characters. Doss’ army unit is stocked with a bomber-crew cast of stereotypes and their leader, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) even delivers a variant on the predictable laugh line “Don’t call me sir—I work for a living!” Much too much time is spent on Doss’ trial (he was court-martialed for refusing to carry a gun during basic training), but finally, we get to the combat scenes and only then does this film really comes alive.

Trust Mel Gibson to find a way to make battle appear both horrifying and ennobling. Every instance of the horrors of war (including many close-ups of grievous wounds and several shots of rats chewing on corpses) is counterbalanced by aestheticized views of combat (who knew flame-throwers could be so beautiful?). Doss suffers and then suffers some more, bearing it all with Christ-like patience (a pattern established in boot camp, when Doss responds to a beating by his fellow soldiers by refusing to name names and simply getting on with his work).

Gibson knows on which side his bread is buttered, and he makes obvious plays for the religious audience (Doss is shown praying at key moments and appears to be ascending to Heaven in one notable shot) and the patriotic crowd (there are no divided loyalties in this script—the Japanese soldiers are never humanized and are shown committing war crimes). Beyond that, there’s a large audience that enjoys cinematic spectacle and doesn’t care about much else, and they’ll love Hacksaw Ridge also. The real Desmond Doss and several of his fellow soldiers appear in an epilogue to the main action, which further cements the appeal to fans of the Greatest Generation. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

 

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