When I did my review of The Birth of a Nation a few weeks ago, I talked about judging the film on the based on the person who made it. That was because the director had been accused of raping a girl back in college, with the alleged victim going on to commit suicide. It tanked the enthusiasm many had for the film and din’t get any nominations for the Oscars, something it was highly tipped for. However Mel Gibson, who as you know has been accused of antisemitism, has been forgiven now as his new film Hacksaw Ridge got a lot of nominations. But does it deserve all that Oscar buzz?
Like many American citizens, Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man) goes to join the army after the country officially enters World war 2. However there is thing that marks him out, he is a Seventh-day adventist Christian who refuses to carry a gun.
So for anyone who thinks I’m going to talk about Mel Gibson (Braveheart) for a while, I’m sorry but I will direct you back to The Birth of a Nation review for my comments on Nate Parker. If you can’t be bothered doing that, basically all I’m going to say is Gibson is a horrible person and I would not want to meet him, but I have to judge the film on it’s own merits.
Anyway, on with the review. There are two distinct thirds to this film. The first third is basically character development as we follow Desmond around Virginia as he prepares to leave and go to war, while also falling in love with a nurse called Dorothy (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies). It’s all sepia toned and very romantic, basically it’s what Pepperidge Farm remembers of the 1940s. And quite honestly, it is really dull. Garfield and Palmer do have some chemistry together, but really the romance is a typical old fashioned courtship and there’s nothing too exciting here.
What Hacksaw Ridge should be doing is really showing off his Christianity and why it is so important to him so that when he is challenged on it in the middle third, when he is training with the army and they are angry he won’t use a gun, we feel personally offended at what the army higher ups are doing. That’s obviously what Gibson was going for by having the other privates beat him up in the middle of the night, Full Metal Jacket style, but the only scene we get really before then is the opening scene when he is a child. It’s a good scene, affecting and a damn good backstory, we just needed more of it.
I suppose this is where I mention that this film follows a lot of the traits of that most terrible of genres, Christian movies. For those who are unfamiliar, these are films such as God Is Not Dead and Old Fashioned where Christians are usually oppressed in some way by evil atheists before their love and religion overpowers everyone and converts the entire cinema, even if you happened to be watching Fifty Shades Darker in the next screen along like a good sinner. These are usually terrible movies with the main aim of soothing the souls of devout Christians, and Hacksaw Ridge follows follows many of their traits. I’ve mentioned them already, the fact there is an oppressed Christian at the centre who just wants to do good, but angry higher-ups, not atheists like usual just less devout Christians, want him to drop that belief so he can kill like a good soldier. In fairness, the film does these moments well mainly because the acting is good and we have have prior knowledge thanks to the trailers of what good Desmond would do, but if you make me think of God Is Not Dead you aren’t doing that well.
However in the final third, you do start to forget any of the faults of Hacksaw Ridge because when the battles in Okinawa get going, you are in what Gibson does best. Harsh imagery. There’s always been a question of whether or not Gibson slips into exploitation at times with some of the images he puts on screen, Passion of the Christ definitely does that for me, but here it all just works. Seeing many young men get instantly killed with barely any build up is genuinely shocking and there is some brilliant prosthetic work going on to make some of the wounds tough to look at. The war scenes are horrific to watch, but in the right way.
And this is all boosted by Garfield who puts in a great performance. He does perfectly well in the scenes before the war, most notably the pain he feels as his fellow privates try to bully him out of the army, but he really does excel in the hellfire of the battle. The film truly makes him out to be a hero, in the credits it is noted that Gibson said he would be the ideal man to be President, and Garfield plays it perfectly with the fear of what is happening around him obviously being in his eyes, yet his actions being so determined and his eagerness to save people. I know there’s another film about Garfield’s spirituality in Japan that many say is a better film and has a better Garfield performance, and I will get to that film eventually, but let’s not ignore the great work he does here.
Hacksaw Ridge is an odd one. The first third of a film is basically what people like to imagine the past is, all buttercups and sweet courtships with young men doing work fixing the local church, the second third follows all the tropes of a Christian movie which sets off alarm bells while the final third is a visceral war movie. In fairness the film flows well despite that, but that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have plenty of flaws. Desmond’s Christianity is not important until the second third and considering that is the USP of this film, that’s a major omission. Those Christian movie tropes can be irritating as well and I also wouldn’t be surprised if some people thought the final third was a bit too much. I can’t recommend this film, but I also wouldn’t deter you from watching because it certainly is interesting and tells a very unique story.