Being Mel Gibson’s fourth movie Hacksaw Ridge, if nothing else, makes for a good skeleton key to Gibson’s artistic obsessions: sermonizing contrasted with extreme violence. Masculine, masochistic martyrdom. That can leave you with beloved-by-many works like Braveheart, the risible gore-porn that is Passion of the Christ, and in his previous movie Apocalypto something that approaches pure cinema. Twenty-four frames-per-second of madness.
It’s been ten years since Gibson has had the clout to get a production made (we’ll call them “personal reasons”), but in Desmond Doss’ struggle for pacifism saving lives in the Battle of Okinawa he follows on from where that insanity left off. Mel Gibson’s camera films war scenes the way Brazzers films college parties, the camera following with obsession over every blown off limb, every headshot, every trail of dead bodies housing one soul screaming for Doss to help them. It makes sense that the weapon that makes the most lasting impression is the flamethrower: intense, burning, extreme torture that lasts until the human body can no longer take it. Mel Gibson’s cinema is a flamethrower.
Some might so much focus on war’s sins instead of Doss’ salvation gleeful, others repellent, but few will deny its intensity and engagement on the subject of violence and redemption. Andrew Garfield’s take on the real-life hero fits that intentional clash with his self-effacing martyrdom and an accent best described as rambunctious, one that would seem out of place anywhere except in Gibson’s heightened melodrama. These choices in acting stands against his more grounded counterparts, including a well used Sam Worthington and a cinematic Vince Vaughan that has not been this engaging in a while.
But that melodrama which assists Gibson in the punchline is of extreme detriment to the set up. The hour before we get to the Battle is, for lack of any word, terrible. It’s a parody of Americana lifted less out of John Steinbeck than Nicolas Sparks, with Andrew Garfield staring into a women’s face for a good minute before saying anything, taking her out for a single date which changes the course of his life to be an army medic. This first hour is also complete with slow motions shots of domestic abuse straight out of afterschool specials and an army training sequence which, while doing an army camp segment is not by itself a plagiarism of Full Metal Jacket, does jokes literally beat for beat. It becomes all the more pointless when the movie reinforces and repeats character motivations from these scenes in the battle on Hacksaw Ridge itself, rendering particularly the sections with Doss’ future wife.
Beyond just accuracy to a life the filmmakers so obviously revere – really, is hard not to do so – it makes sense to contrast Doss’ home with the bloody battlefield. But there is a version of this story which makes that point without it being near on laughable. It’s also not as though the movie is exclusively great after that point, with the occasional cheap looking visual effect, and a shot of water pouring over a bloody body in a manner somewhere between piety and pornography. The movie also does not stop at its most obvious end point, and the climax has one of the most insane intercuts I have seen in a movie, a contrast between two differing kinds of suicidal acts which considering the other scenes were never even referenced to beforehand seem to act as shorthand as “Japan”.
But when it in those first days on Hacksaw Ridge, it is some of the most compelling scenes of war I’ve seen in quite some time, all of which explore Desmond Doss’ character in a way that earns the term visceral. Mel Gibson’s movies are often for the redemption of violence. Whether the movie is redeemed by that is up to you.