Hacksaw Ridge is the tale of two movies.
The first is an emotionally-smothering, by-the-books story of a boy falling in love and shipping off to war while the second is a harrowing horror film spattered with some of the most graphic and grueling war sequences ever.
I wouldn’t say these two stories go together smoothly, and that is what keeps Hacksaw Ridge from being something great.
The film follows Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a man living in Virginia who decides he wants to enlist in the Army but doesn’t want to carry a gun. This angers his superiors, who threaten to have Doss thrown out of the armed forces, but he prevails and ships off to Japan without a rifle in tow.
Back home, his wife, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), awaits his return along with his veteran father (played by Hugo Weaving) and mother (Rachel Griffiths).
For the first act of the film, director Mel Gibson plants us into rural Virginia and follows Doss as he courts Dorothy and plans to make her his wife. Shades of what is to come wade on the surface, but for the most part, it focuses on his relationship with Dorothy and the strain between the family and their patriarch. Mr. Doss came home from World War I without the rest of his friends and sits with that burden each day — sipping alcohol in the graveyard while speaking to their headstones.
He is an aggressive man and that usually festers into violence towards Doss’ mother and he and his brother. This brutality by his father seems to be the catalyst of Doss’ decision to not bear arms while in the Army, but this point is never solidified until later in the film.
For the first and second acts (including Doss in basic training), Hacksaw Ridge is cringingly simplistic. The story is so caked on with emotion that it seems disingenuous to engage with and actually believe the emotions on screen. That isn’t to say the actors aren’t genuinely giving it their all — Garfield, particularly, shines in the lead role — but it doesn’t seem as wholesome as the values put in place by this Southern family.
It isn’t until the troops arrive in Japan and the war begins for Doss that Hacksaw Ridge becomes something memorable. As the men head up the ridge to face the enemy, Gibson films the scene with ferocious horror and intensity. Think of it like Kubrick filming Paths of Glory like The Shining and you’ll get a sense of what Gibson was doing with the third act of Hacksaw Ridge.
The gunfire commences after a howling body thrusts up to shock the audience, and the horror doesn’t let up after that. Bodies are disposable and Gibson hits that point achingly well.
Once Doss begins his heroic acts — pulling people from the battlefield to safety without any true cover — the film does have its share of genuine optimism, but that seems to get lost in the brutality of the war. It seems like Gibson in one breath is speaking towards the heroic and selfless acts of one man who transcends the gore of the battle, but also wants to call to attention the terror of fighting.
It didn’t go together to me and I think that lies in how visceral the sequences of fighting were. Gibson definitely sets a new bar for the genre following Saving Private Ryan, but that almost seems like a disservice to the plot and main character.
It could be interpreted that Gibson wanted to show both sides of war — the heroic acts of the men involved compared to the brutality swirling around them — but I’m not sure that point was ever made.
Regardless, the third act elevates the movie and almost makes you forget about the banality of the first two acts. The scenes where Doss is dodging enemy soldiers and picking up his comrades is thrilling, and resuscitates a story that wasn’t feeling like a movie to that point.
Hacksaw Ridge insults your intelligence for most of its first two acts, but redeems itself with sequences of war stripped down to the bear bone. That’s what makes the beginning so questionable to me as even the most basic level of understanding towards Doss’ ideological views would’ve made his acts of heroism as effective as they were.
It may not have the complete package, but Gibson’s film does have the ability to ask questions about conviction and challenge the audience in honest terms by its conclusion. Maybe it should’ve just stuck to that movie from the beginning.