Hacksaw Ridge  is the new Pacific World War II drama from director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and star Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Social Network). This true-story adaptation about a young man who entered the Army as a combat medic but refused to touch a weapon due to his religious convictions is penned by Robert Shenkkan and Andrew Knight. The film’s star-studded cast also includes Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers), Teresa Palmer (Lights Out), Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), Sam Worthington (Avatar), and Luke Bracey (Point Break). But is it Mel Gibson’s comeback?
Who is Desmond Doss? Out of the gate, our true-to-life hero Desmond Doss (Garfield) is layered, with the narrative-constructing itself around him. Truly, that is one of Hacksaw Ridge’s greatest triumphs, creating more than just an unlikely hero. Instead, it creates a character; one with depth, with reasons for his actions beyond impassioned bravery and underdog motivation. Doss may be an underdog, but that point only services the more important aspect of his character; that materially, Doss’ reasons for what he believes are motivated by more than just Jesus or the Bible. They don’t only exist in a pre-fabricated unsubstantiated morality trait. On every level, Doss is fascinating.
PG-13?! Films, particularly those in recent memory, are finding it easier and easier to dodge the box-office hindering R-rating, despite their content. This movie can definitely be added to that pile. While it safely stays well within PG-13 territory during its first two acts, Hacksaw Ridge has some incredibly graphic violence during the titular battle in Okinawa. I do not bring this up as a criticism of the film. Mel Gibson is certainly no stranger to violence in either his directorial efforts (see: Passion of the Christ and Braveheart) or his starring roles (Mad Max and the aforementioned Braveheart), but I argue that this is the most effective way he has used it in a feature film. When I say effective, I do not mean ‘guilt-tripped an entire religious demographic into feeling bad’ effective (we know which film I’m talking about here). I mean that when young Desmond Doss finally leaves the safety of his home; hell, or even the cruel training course at Ft. Jackson, the impact of just how hellish war can hit home in ways that are disturbing, blinding, and unrelentingly gripping.
Sappy start; Ardent finish: Perhaps another reason Hacksaw Ridge is so compelling is its refusal to quarantine itself into one type of film. You may be surprised to realize that more than half the film takes place before Doss ever sets foot on Japanese soil. What we concentrate on instead (smartly, I might add) is the brick-by-brick assembly of Doss himself, all culminating in a shattering and boisterous final act. While undeniably touching in many of the right ways, the first two acts can get a little too heavily caught up in their desire to bathe the audience in sap; this approach may have been intentional in an attempt to add brass knuckles to the already-shocking punch the final act swings at us. That being said, it’s difficult to identify that intent unless you’ve reached the end credits.
The Heart at the Center of all the Blood: I’d be doing the film a disservice not to talk about Andrew Garfield. To be perfectly honest, the trailer for this film was not well cut. Out of context, Garfield sounded cheesy and maybe even like he was venturing a bit into the “too much” slice of the acting pie graph. Was it his high-pitched voice? That artificial southern drawl (Garfield is English)? It could be any number of things, but on any level, the trailer was incredibly misleading, as Garfield truly does give life to Desmond Doss, an already well-written character. The development was on the paper, and Garfield was the heart and soul to give it realization. I don’t predict any Oscar recognition for him, but if by some long shot that happens, it would be well-deserved. Across the board, the cast is stellar. Vince Vaughn gets a chance to flex his comedic muscles, while also demonstrating some dramatic heft. Hugo Weaving plays Desmond’s father, putting aside his usual elegant (if villainous) charm, in favor of pitiful self-loathing that ties heavily into Desmond’s own character arc. Sam Worthington is proving his worth (ha) as a worthy character actor (okay, no more), having seemingly been abandoned by the leading man’s circle. Teresa Palmer and Luke Bracey both round out the main cast, giving notable performances in their respective roles, particularly Bracey.
Touching, Engaging, Disturbing Drama: On almost all counts, Hacksaw Ridge is a resounding success. It tells a thrilling, yet emotionally involving true tale of a Christian soldier without being overly preachy about its subject’s beliefs. This in and of itself is a surprising accomplishment, given Gibson’s earlier work. But thank goodness he took that route. Some of the best war sequences ever put on film provide a stark contrast to the mawkish, yet effective first two acts of the film. The complete picture is pleasing, a film that stands among some of the best 2016 has to offer, and proof that perhaps Mel Gibson is still a directorial force to be reckoned with.