For all sorts of emotional and psychological reasons I'm trying to figure out as a critic and, relatedly, as a human, audiences tend to remember and even admire what traumatizes them in the name of entertainment. But even a film determined to show us the grisliest horrors of war must traumatize and -- more palatably -- excite in roughly equal measure, in order to make a lot of money.
I think director Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge" is going to make a lot of money.
Its old-fashioned storytelling collides with new-level gore, gory enough to make "Saving Private Ryan" look like "The Big Broadcast of 1938." The film knows exactly what it's doing, regarding faith-based audiences and war movie buffs. Much of the film is gripping, or at least effectively assaultive, and when you have a director as fervent in his determination to put you through it, as proved by the earlier Gibson hits "The Passion of the Christ" and "Apocalypto," you're halfway to another popular success.
This one's tailor-made for the upcoming Veterans Day holiday. Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, "Hacksaw Ridge" takes its name from the forbidding 350-foot cliff also known as Maeda Escarpment on the island of Okinawa, the 1945 scene of some of the worst carnage of World War II. The script creates a solemn, extraordinarily bloody account of the trials by fire met by real-life Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh-day Adventist and medic who was the first conscientious objector to receive that honor.
From "Braveheart," especially, but also "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson learned a great deal about pacing and structuring a biopic culminating in ungodly anguish but dealing with a few other things along the way. After a fiery, slow-motion prologue, announcing the Okinawa battles to come, the first hour of "Hacksaw Ridge" depicts Doss' often harsh upbringing in Lynchburg, Va., beaten regularly by his alcoholic wreck of a World War I veteran father (Hugo Weaving) and comforted by a loving mother (Rachel Griffiths). These scenes alternate between storybook idealization and nightmarish confrontations with a father eaten up by self-loathing.
After Pearl Harbor, the war is on and Doss' town is emptied of its fighting men, his brother included. So he joins up, after courting and promising to marry a local nurse (Theresa Palmer, playing a quality -- "luminous" -- as opposed to a person). The next section of "Hacksaw Ridge" finds Doss in Army basic training. His religious beliefs dictate that he will not carry a weapon, even in training. Vince Vaughn, plainly enjoying himself, plays his casually astonished sergeant, who encourages hazing and beatings of Doss administered by the men known, variously, as "Tex," "Hollywood," "Ghoul" and other nicknames. Their mission: to drum Doss out of the military. Nothing works; Doss is resolute, his beliefs are bedrock and his God sees him through.
It's impossible to watch any treatment of this man's life and not be amazed. (The movie leaves out the difficult postwar part of Doss' life.) What he accomplished in terms of saving lives, many left for dead, was truly exceptional. The limitation of "Hacksaw Ridge," for all its gut-punch viscera, comes from Gibson treating Doss not as exceptional, but as a messiah. Some of the individual images go straight for the Christlike iconography, as when Doss is lifted on a stretcher into the heavens, with composer Rupert Gregson-Williams practically fire-hosing the screen with musical sanctimony.
The man at the heart of the story does not need this sort of grandiosity. It "works," but it's shameless. And the way Gibson has staged the roughest of the Okinawa footage in the second half of "Hacksaw Ridge," weirdly little of it is from Doss' perspective. Gibson may be intellectually compelled by this pacifist in the midst of hell on Earth, but dramatically he's only nominally interested in how it informed every aspect of his life. In any event, Gibson may not be the director to explore the moral horrors of any war, any conflict. He's too interested in physical punishment to make room for much else, though the recurring images of Japanese (symbols of evil, not men) and American soldiers on fire are thematically linked to the all-consuming fire imagery ingrained in the Seventh-day Adventist beliefs.
"My values are under attack," says Garfield at one point, in a line, surely, that holds personal meaning to Gibson. The director's off-screen trials, alcohol-related run-ins with the law and ragey, anti-Semitic and misogynist comments put him in Hollywood's doghouse for years. But as quickly as they piled on, Gibson's onetime attackers may well pile right back off again. If "Hacksaw Ridge" is a success, Gibson's redemption seems assured. I respectfully, conscientiously object to the way Desmond Doss has been simplified and sanctified in the movie. But Gibson has talent to go with his demons, and someday he may realize it in full.
MPAA rating: R (for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images).
Running time: 2:18