Mel Gibson’s films ordinarily treat violence as a symbol of passion. William Wallace leads a bloody revolution for the freedom of Scotland in “Braveheart.” Jaguar Paw must kill his captors to return to his wife in “Apocalypto.” Jesus is tortured and crucified to save his followers in “The Passion of the Christ.” With that in mind, it’s strange that Gibson would choose a project in which the main character shows his passion through staunch peace and nonviolence. That’s not to say that “Hacksaw Ridge” isn’t a violent movie, but Gibson utilizes the violence here to sharply contrast with Desmond Doss’s (Andrew Garfield, “The Amazing Spider-Man”) vow not to take a life. He tells the story of a man surrounded by darkness who refuses to let it consume him, and injecting it into a film with a perfect cast and action set pieces that are nothing short of incredible.
As jaw-dropping as those war scenes can be, the opening scenes of the film, which paint a picture of Doss’s upbringing, are just as powerful; the audience witnesses the poignant evolutions of the relationships and ideals which come to define Doss through the war. As he does for most of the film, Garfield carries these scenes with a charm that could have been grating had it not come across as so incredibly earnest. There’s never a moment when it seems like he’s deliberately overplaying a certain part of the character for effect, whether in his scenes opposite Teresa Palmer (“Lights Out”), with whom he shares adorable chemistry, or in his scenes with his father (Hugo Weaving, “The Matrix”), which are nothing short of quietly devastating. As Desmond’s PTSD-stricken father, Tom, Weaving gives one of the best supporting performances of the year as he portrays a man completely broken by war and killing who doesn’t want the same fate to befall his sons. He’s a hard man, and the film doesn’t excuse his behavior, but Weaving manages to make him one of the most sympathetic characters.
Once Doss leaves for boot camp, Gibson draws on well-worn war movie tropes, but even in doing so, cleverly subverts them. Vince Vaughn (“Wedding Crashers”) plays Doss’s drill sergeant, Howell. At first, he acts as is expected; he hates Doss, considers him a coward and makes life hell for him as a result. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done in just about every war movie ever made. It’s as their relationship progresses that Howell becomes a more complex character, and his actions become less straightforwardly antagonistic and more believably human.
Then comes the war. There’s no mincing words here: these scenes are brutal, as brutal as war movies have ever been. Instead of, say, Spielberg’s approach to “Saving Private Ryan,” in which he followed Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller for most of the Omaha Beach scene, Gibson frequently switches the point of view between the characters of the supporting cast, leading to a feeling of disorientation and chaos that is likely similar to what soldiers at Okinawa felt. The enemy Japanese soldiers are rarely seen, and the soldiers, along with the audience, feel completely blind.
Still, what is most surprising about “Hacksaw Ridge” is the deft way Gibson deals with the complexities of war. America is, of course, in the right here, but it is clear that not every decision an American soldier makes is the right one. Doss’s convictions are never called into question, but neither does Gibson dismiss those who disagreed with him completely out of hand. It shows remarkable maturity from a director who has obviously had issues dealing with those different from him in the past.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is a remarkable war film. Its cast is nearly perfect, and both Garfield and Weaving may garner awards consideration as the year continues. The characters are complex and, likable or not, achingly human, and its war scenes are both devastating and awe-inspiringly crafted. With his first film in ten years, Mel Gibson has crafted a testament to true bravery, exhibited in both those who choose to fight and those who don’t.