Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington
Watch Hacksaw Ridge online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.” That’s Desmond Doss (Garfield) in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Religion and Mel Gibson, it’s safe to say, don’t always go well together, particularly off-screen, where his views and comments in recent years have been problematic at best. But Hacksaw Ridge, which saw the filmmaker welcomed back in the Academy Award nominee field this year, reveals how integral the director’s religious faith is to his work – and the result, thanks to Andrew Garfield’s performance, is a deeply moving piece of cinema.
Doss is a pacifist who cannot bear the thought of picking up a gun and shooting someone. But as a patriotic American, he also cannot bear the idea of doing nothing in response to the attack on Pearl Harbour. And so he enlists in the army, hoping to be a medic and contribute that way. The only problem? Everyone else in the army doesn’t quite see things the same way
The result is the highly familiar montage of bootcamp training sequences, complete with shouting drill sergeants and bullying bands of brothers. But there’s a fresh sense of struggle to the conventional underdog tale, as Doss grins and bears the questioning, mocking and shunning of those who do not understand his view. That view is simplistic, but unabashedly so – and Andrew Garfield delivers it with a straight-faced sincerity that is hard to fault. What might have been cliched in other hands is made endearingly genuine by the former Spider-Man. Between this and his turn in 99 Homes, Garfield is quietly reminding us why he is one of the best actors of his generation, web-slinging or no web-slinging.
He’s contrasted beautifully by Hugo Weaving as his alcoholic, disheveled dad, who fought in WWI and has never been the same since. Their complex relationship, which is slowly unpicked in flashbacks and restrained conversations, helps to frame Doss’ naivety against the cruel impact of war – a brutality that Gibson offsets with bright, colourful pastorial images of Doss’ hometown and his sweetheart, local nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).
If that sounds like a jumble of ideas and styles, you’d be right: Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s complex screenplay finds room not just for cute romance, idealistic speeches and gruff psychological trauma, but also a surprising sense of humour. That comes courtesy of a scene-stealing Vince Vaughn as Sgt. Howell, who barks his way through a funny role as a tough officer, unafraid to lighten the mood without skimping on the strict, intimidating nature of the conflict at hand.
The conflict, when it does come, is as horrifying as it gets, with hordes of troops thrown into the titular ridge on Okinawa to face off Japan’s fanatic forces. Blood, grenades, corpses and swords combine to make for a nightmarish hellscape that doesn’t skimp on the violence. That predilection for sadistic gore will be familiar for those who have seen Gibson’s previous work, but it’s the director’s faith that gives Hacksaw Ridge its heart – a sincere appreciation of Doss’ certitude, from his stations-of-the-cross-style battle to his simple pleas for God to help him save one more soldier in Okinawa. Unlike Passion of the Christ or even Braveheart, this story’s hero doesn’t take on physical suffering, or kill others to prove their theological mettle, but does so by a less problematic refusal to bear arms. The result is an impressive piece of blockbusting that uses tropes of the genre with a confident juggling of tones – most of all, unashamed sentimentality. An epilogue featuring interviews with talking head survivors of the real events ventures a step too far into righteous territory, but while we’re on Hacksaw Ridge, this is a heartfelt, moving war film that has the courage of its convictions.
Hacksaw Ridge is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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