"This is storytelling. This is cinema. Hacksaw Ridge is utterly brilliant!"
A film about faith and beliefs, starring Andrew Garfield. Starting with this sentence I would have expected to be writing about Silence. But here I am, jotting down my impressions of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. This gripping WW2 tale, focussing on faith, courage and sticking to your convictions instead of the usual heroics and grandeur, once again shows Gibson’s unique talent to blend faith and violence like no other.
Hacksaw Ridge is an unrelenting, brutal account of the taking of Hacksaw Ridge during WW2 and the monumental effort of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honour, for service above and beyond the call of duty.
We are introduced to Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) as a violent kid, who almost kills his little brother with a brick to the head during a fight. This incident, along with his mother’s strong Christian beliefs, firmly ingrains his strict belief of the sixth commandment. 15 years later pacifist Doss joins the army as a medic to save lives in WW2. Branded a coward by his unit as he won’t bear arms, they approach the battle for Hacksaw Ridge. It is here where Doss’ faith and convictions are truly put to the test.
Amidst the mind-blowing horrific depiction of war, Andrew Garfield gives the performance of a lifetime (so far, I’m sure he will surpass even this in a few years). He tackles the smiley, smitten, borderline doofus who is trying to win the girl equally as well as the exhausted medic running across the body-part-riddled battlefield, looking for people to save. I could almost feel Doss’ exhaustion thanks to Garfield’s portrayal. The physicality of this role is demanding and Garfield knocks it out of the park. I was with him crawling across the blood-soaked ground, ducking into mortar craters and holding my breath lying under corpses, trying to carry just one more man to safety. Paired with the emotional toll his character is going through this is one of the most captivating performances I have seen in a long time.
The entire cast is brilliant; from Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell, a hard ass with a heart, to Luke Pegler’s Hollywood, who has an affinity for nakedness and brings some levity to the film, to Luke Bracey’s Smitty, who turns from antagonist to best mate, every single one of Doss’ fellow soldiers were memorable. Teresa Palmer is great as Doss’ girlfriend and wife, but I want to give a special mention to Hugo Weaving, who plays Doss’ father. His portrayal of a WW1 veteran, who has lost every single friend he ever had in battle, broken by what he has endured, wowed me and made me tear up at the same time. There is a scene in the film, where his youngest son comes to the dinner table in uniform and Weaving gives this haunting speech, and I will forever remember his lower lip trembling uncontrollably before he could form the words and speak. It was subtle, yet powerful. Everyone is talking about Garfield’s performance, and it is brilliant, but Weaving is right up there with him.
Gibson does a remarkable job telling the tale of Desmond Doss. Most biopics I have seen usually get a bit checklisty, jumping from one major event to the next, killing the flow of the narrative. Not so in Hacksaw Ridge. The story progresses at a nice pace from Doss’ early years all the way to the event that made him famous. Gibson takes his time to introduce the characters. No unnecessary bits, no fat to cut. And that at 140 minutes running time is impressive. While the film definitely racks up in intensity once the battle starts, the more tranquil earlier bits are just as captivating and not without conflict and Gibson even manages to work in several funny moments. They are the perfect counterweight to what is to come.
With the soldiers ready, naval artillery ploughs the battlefield and everyone in the audience is right there with them, feeling every single shot. The soldiers advance quietly, someone screams, and all hell breaks loose. The noise is deafening, the chaos complete. Everyone is staring at the screen in utter disbelief as to the carnage we are seeing. Gibson doesn’t hold back. War is brutal. War is chaotic. War is death. The cinematography is stunning. Intimate and grandiose in equal measure, finding the beautiful moments amongst chaos and destruction. We see numerous people mowed down within seconds by bullets we didn’t even see, but hear. It is an assault on the senses. Overpowering. The sound design is phenomenal. Explosions shake your body. You hear bullets whistling past. You hear them impact, FEEL them impact. You hear, before you see, someone steps on a decomposed body. The squishy sound making you nauseous now that you know what it is. This film is a disgusting experience of the horrors of war. In all its gutsy, gritty, brutal and chaotic splendour.
But overall it is a film about faith and principles. We see Doss endure hardship due to his beliefs, but he soldiers on. We witness him stumble, lose faith upon a friends’ death. He is lost without his faith and only the cry for a “medic” snaps him out of it. Fuelled by his reaffirmed faith he runs into the thickest chaos to help others, with no regard for his own life.
Near the end Gibson went a bit overboard in revering Doss in a borderline cheesy way. Given the look and sound of the film at that point, for the first time I thought maybe Doss won’t make it. Maybe someone else told of his heroics and it wasn't on his account. I won't spoil that for you, but given the utter brilliance until then I easily forgive Gibson this cheesiness.
Hacksaw Ridge is tough to put into words and truly do it justice. You have to experience it. An anti-war film with a pacifist message. A tale of faith, determination and sacrifice. No matter what you think of Gibson as a person or an actor, he is a magnificent storyteller. I have seen this film twice in one day and it was just as gripping the second time around. If that doesn't tell you what an exceptional piece of storytelling this is I don’t know what else to say. A powerhouse of a film. An utterly brilliant masterpiece.