Hacksaw Ridge is a powerhouse film tackling the morality of war head on. Can you justify forgoing your own beliefs in order to take another life? In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) has a discussion with Private Reiben (Edward Burns) about their job to complete the “mission” no matter what (even forgoing their own beliefs) because that could be their ticket home. In contrast, Hacksaw Ridge takes us through the blood-soaked ditches in Okinawa and asks, is the mission worth compromising who you are?
This film is the first Mel Gibson has directed in over a decade. Gibson has been on the outs with Hollywood after being caught on tape spouting off color remarks towards his wife. That mixed with an early 2006 DUI arrest, the anti-semitism issues, and it led him to to rehab. Gibson is now sober and back in the director’s chair. Hollywood loves a redemption story and one can’t help but wonder if Hacksaw Ridge will be his.
The film centers around the life of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). Doss was the son of a Seventh-day Adventist and led a very religious life. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Doss was saddened by the tragedy but never wavered in his beliefs, and his status as a conscientious objector was understandable as he had seen first hand what war does to a person. His father Tom (Hugo Weaving) wavered from his belief system and came back from World War I a broken human being who drowned his grief in whiskey.
As Doss wrestles with how he could serve his country he falls in love with a local nurse, Dorthy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) and is convinced that she will be his wife. In the midst of their courtship, he is compelled to enlist as the Army ensures him that he could be a medic who wouldn’t carry a gun.
Doss is constantly belittled and pressured into abandoning his values by his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and captain (Sam Worthington). He’s eventually court-martialed and his belief system is put on trial. Through the course of the trial, it’s determined that Doss has, in fact, not committed a crime and he’s set free. The scene quickly shifts to Doss’s arrival at Hacksaw Ridge and a look of astonishment as countless numbers of dead bodies are piled into flatbed trucks and driven away from the battlefield.
Gibson doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of war. The battle scenes are portrayed in the most graphic of ways. Limbs are blown off, blood is flying everywhere, and fear is evident in the eyes of both the Americans and the Japanese.There’s nothing glamorous about these sequences because there’s nothing glamorous about death. The production design in Hacksaw Ridge is stellar. Cinematographer Simon Duggan takes slight risk in using handheld camera shots when an American soldier is engaged in close combat with a Japanese soldier, but it’s the right call.
Andrew Garfield and Hugo Weaving are both impressive. Weaving is fascinating as Private Doss’s father who is clearly facing new demons following the demon slaying on the battlefield. Garfield attacks the role with a level of veracity that will move the toughest of men to tears. Doss realizes that his beliefs could easily get him killed in battle, yet he stands resolute even when the odds seem daunting. It’s the best performance of Garfield’s career and will certainly attract the attention of Oscar voters down the road.
Hacksaw Ridge will end up as one of the best films of 2016, and rightfully so. With a mixture of great direction, fantastic production design, eye-popping cinematography, and award-worthy performances, films like this one are refreshing to watch and write about. Let’s hope we can continue this trend as we march further into awards season.