Former Hollywood pariah Mel Gibson is back with Hacksaw Ridge, a World War II drama that tells the true and truly incredible story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved 75 men from the tenacious titular battlefield all while refusing to carry a weapon. Maybe this extraordinary tale of one man’s devotion to faith and non-violence in the face of gruesome war has you reconsidering the art vs. artist debate once more. Well, we’ll get to that oft-tricky topic, but first let’s talk Hacksaw Ridge.
Andrew Garfield stars as Doss, a Virginian hillbilly whose deep pride in America drives him to enlist in the armed forces, but whose deep faith in the tenets of the Seventh-day Adventist Church bars him from engaging in the armed aspect. Despite the fury raged on him from his commanding officers and his fellow Privates, Doss won’t back down, and stands up for his right to be a combat medic who won’t carry, even on the front lines of Okinawa, Japan. There, as his peers engage in a vicious battle with “sneaky Japs,” Doss dedicates himself to saving lives, pulling the wounded from the wreckage of war, and carrying them to safety. Doss’s is a fascinating tale of bravery, but under Gibson’s direction it’s largely lost amid war-movie cliche and colliding ideology.
Hacksaw Ridge is so overloaded with tropes it nearly reads as parody. Naturally there are flashback scenes to Doss’s youth, striped with victories and violence, the latter at the hands of his blustering, red-faced, drunken abusive dad (Hugo Weaving swallowed whole by archetype overload). Doss’s squad is likewise packed with stereotypes, from the swarthy Italian, to the smart one called Teach, the Brooklyn guy, and the instantly angry square-jawed dude who is obviously named Smitty (there’s always a Smitty).
Of course, there’s a bellowing drill sergeant dedicated to making Doss’s life a living hell. But this tirading tyrant’s potential vitriol is diluted by Gibson’s inexplicable casting of Vince Vaughn in the role. Sure, the Swingers star has done drama, but as he screeches out mean-spirited nicknames like Private Idiot, Ghoul, and Chief then whoops “Indian” war cries, his ferocity is mellowed by a doughy dad bod and laconic tinge that makes it feel like Gibson is trolling. This frustrating feeling only intensifies when the burly and boldly naked soldier called Hollywood (Luke Pegler) is forced through an obstacle course very out of uniform. Because what macho movie about manhood would be complete without a dash of homoeroticism and side-peen?
Worse still, Garfield and his boyish charms are eviscerated in the form of Doss, who might be meant as a simple-minded nice guy, but comes off as a creeper Nice Guy in the film’s requisite love subplot. As soon as this virginal farm boy spots pretty nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), he’s besotted. But she’s at work, and he’s covered in blood. It’s the least cute meet-cute ever. And it gets worse as Gibson tries to paint light stalking, unblinking staring, nonconsensual kissing, and sexual bargaining as good old-fashioned courting. By the time these two are beaming over their engagement, this repulsed reviewer wanted to bail out on this whole endeavor. But then I would have missed the full blunt force of Gibson’s filmmaking.
There’s an interesting moral quandary behind Doss’s stand. He understands that war demands death. But he believes God wants him personally to avoid causing death. Does his refusal to carry a gun make him a risk to his fellow soldiers? Does it make him morally superior? When other soldiers kill to save him, isn’t he culpable in part? Basically, as a conscientiously co-operative soldier, is there blood on his hands whether he carries a weapon or not?
Hacksaw Ridge is not interested in these questions.
Some are posed half-heartedly in Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s trailer-driven dialogue, but Gibson doesn’t seem to have any interest in the complexities, only superficial interest in Doss’s life story. The lip service to faith and the repeated loving close-ups of Doss’s blood-stained bible is just set dressing for Gibson’s signature gore. Gibson’s ghoulish interest in carnage and violence manifests into a nightmarish and torturously long sequence filled with disembowelments, explosions, cries of pain, and not one but two showers of blood. There’s even a scene where one American soldier picks up the top half of his blown-to-bits buddy to use it as a human shield. Around this point, you might start to suspect that Gibson—who famously made a story about Jesus more horrifically graphic than the Saw movies—has a bigger hard-on for violence than he does the story of his non-violent hero. And considering Doss is totally absent for a substantive chunk of his biopic’s brutal climax, you’d be right.
The film’s characters say one thing, while Gibson’s gratuitous use of slo-mo in blood-bedecked battle scenes proclaims the exact opposite. It’s not complex. It’s just conflicted. Oh, and totally fucking racist, portraying the Japanese as nameless ghastly hordes who rise from the Earth to slaughter the Americans again and again, seeming to resurrect Jason Voorhees style. Of course, if you think all Asian people look alike, you may well think they have special not-dying powers as they fight on their own land. You might think they are less people and more frightful monsters, perfect for jump scare reveals. But now I’m stretching to understand the mind of Mel Gibson. Let’s back away slowly.
Thankfully, Gibson does do us one favor with Hacksaw Ridge. He makes this art vs. artist debate easy. This movie is so sloppy, stupid, and willfully jingoistic that you have no need to see it. Ever. You can tell people you’ve declined because Gibson is a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic asshole who will not be getting your ticket-buying money. Or you can say it’s because you’ve seen the trailer, and heard from a reliable source that’s as good as this gory but gutless WWII drama gets. Either way, you’re all set. And you’re welcome.