Hot Take: I get why you might think Hacksaw Ridge is a great film but Mel Gibson’s affection for graphic violence knocks this incredible true story down a peg from great to good.
I’m not really sure why Mel Gibson thinks we need to see every dangling body part or every dripping appendage caused by the results of a horrifying battle during World War II. I get it. War is hell. People got hurt, disfigured, lost limbs and died during battles. However, Gibson’s obsession with showing us every detail (right down to the rats eating away at the corpses on the battlefield) feels almost sadistically pornographic for someone with an obsession with graphic violence. Considering this is the same director who delivered Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, maybe graphic violence is an obsession for Gibson. For this movie, it becomes a distraction as you’d like the center of attention to remain on its remarkable main character, Private Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), but find yourself focusing on the scenes of death and dismemberment which dominate the third act.
This in no way is to say Hacksaw Ridge is a bad film. The story of Doss, a pacifist who joins the military to become a medic but refuses to carry a weapon, is too good to be completely ruined by the obsession with graphic violence or the preachy nature of some of the ideological reasons behind Doss’s beliefs. The story follows Doss through his upbringing with a tormented alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) and his loving, faithful mother (Rachel Griffiths). His father was a World War I survivor who was the only person to come back from the war from a group of friends who decided to enlist. The guilt he feels from his survival haunts him and leads to his drinking and abusive behavior. The story also explores his youthful romance with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a nurse Doss meets after saving a young man’s life.
The story diverges from the first half when Doss enlists into the Army and heads off to basic training. The second act feels like a knock-off of Full Metal Jacket as Doss meets a cast of colorful characters and faces stiff resistance from Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) which eventually manifests itself into the rest of his company and the Army itself when Doss declares he will not bear arms. If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, you’ll quickly pick up on the similarities. Maybe there’s not another way to tell these stories but damn if it doesn’t seem derivative. Even with the film being based on a true story, this particular chapter of Doss’s tale feels generic thanks to the similarities.
Once Doss makes it to combat, that’s when Gibson’s obsession with graphic violence takes over. Even before the soldiers join the battle, we’re treated to wagons of dead bodies still dripping with blood and cartoonish horrified looks on their faces. It’s grim but so morbid it’s not as emotional of a moment as you’d expect. Having experienced Gibson’s penchant for violent detail, this also serves as a precursor of things to come. As we’re taken through Doss’s amazing heroics in the Battle of Okinawa, the distraction of scene after scene of what eventually feels to be unnecessarily detailed scenes of graphic violence, you want to focus on the story but oops, there goes another missing leg and there’s another rat gnawing off the face of a dead corpse.
Like The Passion of the Christ, even the faith-based aspect of the story takes a backseat to the violence ever present on the screen. It seems to be a Gibson trademark and maybe you’re okay with that. For this reviewer, it subtracts from the impact of the film and Hacksaw Ridge and the amazing story of Doss might have fared better in the hands of someone not so enthralled with creative kill shots, blood, guts, dismemberment and death. It’s Gibson’s calling card, though, so at least you shouldn’t be surprised.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Garfield & the Doss Story
The compliment of Garfield’s performance and Doss’s big screen-worthy tale is evident. Garfield delivers the best acting of his career and does a respectful job of bringing humanity and humility to Doss’s heroic feats.
- A Balanced Tale
The film devotes enough time but not too much time to Doss’s upbringing and romance with Schutte without distracting from the heart of the story. At times, the romance feels a little schmaltzy but it works when you put it in perspective of how Doss is portrayed.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
Because of the comparisons that occur between Hacksaw Ridge and Full Metal Jacket, it’s impossible not to compare Vaughn’s performance to R. Lee Ermey’s performance in the Kubrick classic. Unfortunately, Vaughn couldn’t hold Ermey’s jockstrap when it comes to playing a Platoon Sergeant. To be fair to Vaughn, Ermey had practice — he was a sergeant before turning to acting.
- Wasted Greatness
It’s been said a few times here but the Doss tale is a truly great one. Too bad the movie was only good with obvious avoidable flaws that played into the director’s personal storytelling bias.