Directed by: Mel Gibson || Produced by: Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic, Brian Oliver, David Permut, Tyler Thompson
Screenplay by: Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan || Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn, Ryan Corr, Richard Roxburgh, Luke Pegler, Richard Pyros
Music by: Rupert Gregson-Williams || Cinematography: Simon Duggan || Edited by: John Gilbert || Country: United States, Australia || Language: English
Running Time: 131 minutes
Given how frequently American pop culture overlooks those who run over people with their motor vehicles (e.g. Caitlyn Jenner, Matthew Broderick, Donte Stallworth) while chastising those who mistreat dogs (e.g. Michael Vick), I never sympathized with Hollywood’s vehement contempt for Mel Gibson’s wacko religious beliefs nor his anti-Semitic rants, particularly given his unchallenged strengths as an actor, writer, and director. As South Park put it, “Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the son of a bitch knows story structure!”
As such, I was thrilled to hear about his latest feature, Hacksaw Ridge, the true story about the United States’ first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, our highest military commendation, and Gibson’s first directorial effort since 2006’s Apocalypto. The film follows the the service of one Desmond Doss, a pacifist combat medic who refused to carry a weapon due to his religious beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist, and saved the lives of dozens of servicemen throughout the World War II (WWII) Pacific Front.
The film’s only struggles occur during its opening act, which cover Doss’ (Andrew Garfield) upbringing in Lynchburg, Virginia and his relationship with his estranged, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), who fought in World War I. Though the characters are strong here and the emotional backstory is necessary, these character establishments take far too long, and the following sections of Basic Training are standard-issue. Garfield’s relationship with love-interest Teresa Palmer is fine, but only becomes interesting after he’s arrested for insubordination and is forced to make a hard choice regarding his family legacy and his personal convictions.
Once the story transitions to the Pacific Front is when things become interesting; the buildup to Garfield’s squad’s approach to the titular battle is impeccable, and the set-design of the battlefield is impressive. What’s even better is the action itself, which boasts unforgettable carnage, powerful gore and makeup FX, and terrific sound-design that should be in conversations for next year’s Oscars. Hacksaw Ridge’s sound-editing is unparalleled, mixing pulse-pounding explosions and sharp gunfire with smoldering human flesh, crackling dirt, and crisp, clear dialogue throughout.
Cinematographer Simon Duggan’s slow-motion tracking-shots are equally impressive, showcasing brilliant lighting schemes and smooth, almost aestheticised war-time violence. The cleanness of John Gilbert’s edits and rawness of the violence’s practical FX emphasize the grit of our protagonist’s experience, and the action’s geographic clarity is a natural consequence of these carefully arranged, in-camera special FX.
Hacksaw Ridge is primarily Andrew Garfield’s playground, boasting his best performance since David Fincher’s Social Network (2010), but supporting cast-members Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington (remember him?), and Vince Vaughn flesh out a team of obligatory yet competent military stereotypes. I wish Rachel Griffiths had been given more time as Doss’ mother, Bertha, given her small yet critical relationship with Garfield and Weaving, but I suppose the formulaic romance with Palmer ate up valuable screen-time.
Still, Hacksaw Ridge is worth it for its war-cinematography alone, particularly given Mel Gibson’s penchant for hardcore violence and his immaculate sound-design. It’s one of the best war films released in years, and one of the better dramatizations of the WWII Pacific Front in particular. I’d say this is a return to form for Gibson, but he never really stopped making good movies, instead being forced off the mainstream into unofficial “director’s jail” as some would say.
In any case, this movie is a powerhouse of technical filmmaking, and could be a Best Actor nod for Garfield in addition to its deserved practical FX and editing acclaim. If you have any interest in war films, Gibson’s filmography, or unconventional true stories, Hacksaw Ridge is worth your time.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Mel Gibson embraces his infamous talent for stylized cinematic violence and religious overtones to tackle a subject-matter that he was born to film. Andrew Garfield was perfectly cast for the lead role, which may hopefully divert him from future superhero movies. Technically speaking, Hacksaw Ridge is a near masterpiece, showcasing some of the best sound-design and the smoothest, most effective tracking-shots I’ve seen in a long time.
— However… Hacksaw Ridge takes time to build up steam, particularly on the domestic front. Its Basic Training scenes and military supporting roles aren’t bad, just by-the-numbers and not memorable. The principle romance between Garfield and Palmer is not worth its screen-time.
? I don’t remember how to tie a bowline. I’m an embarrassment to the Boy Scouts of America. But then again, they already embarrassed themselves, so fuck it.