Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Director: Mel Gibson

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn

Hacksaw Ridge is an especially fine example of how the wrong kind of trailer can work against a film. This piece of work does a number of things a decent trailer shouldn’t. First and foremost, it gives you every major plot point of the first half of the film, arguably rendering over an hour as pure exercise once you’re in the theatre. That’s an egregious amount of spoilers to jam into your advert and is liable to give the impression to some that forking out a tenner or more to merely fill in the blanks is an unreasonable ask. No trailer needs to run over two minutes anyway. In addition, and particularly when addressing this film, it gives a misleading depiction of the overall tone. The first hour of Hacksaw is, to put it bluntly, as corny as they come. A lot of what follows goes some way to redress the balance, but this trailer so heavily plunders the opening jag that the overall impression is skewed.

On the basis of this trailer, I did not want to see Hacksaw Ridge. I thought it looked like a film with a saccharine, Bible-thumping All American agenda. I wrote it off, essentially, as another of Mel Gibson’s follies, assuming it to be guilty of all of Hollywood’s worst excesses.

I only went because of the Best Picture nomination. I try to see all of those in contention.

However, that the trailer bombards you with the film’s cheesiest aw’shucks moments may have been a deliberate ploy. It seems, with hindsight, like the laying down of the rug in preparation for the moment it gets swept away. That moment comes when the troops reach the top of the titular Hacksaw Ridge, and hell is unleashed on the viewer.

How this sailed through with a 15 certificate I will never know. Gibson’s depiction of warfare is as vicious as they come; a chaotic, adrenaline pumping, explosive blood path. Soldiers we’ve come to know have their brains blown out as quickly as the flicker between frames. Or are obliterated in a red mist of death. Oozing wounds are ogled. Rats gnaw on the innards of the long dead. With flippancy one character remarks, “We are not in Kansas anymore.” You’re goddamn right we’re not.

So it’s a bait and switch, but an effective one. For the first hour we come to know Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who has enlisted to help the war effort as America battles the Japanese. He’s a devout man and the reasons for that are hammered home. Yet he feels a sense of duty to his country, and so intends, with a heart full of patriotic goodwill, to make a difference… though he will not bare arms.

This last part doesn’t go down too well with his superiors, as you might well imagine (or already know from that trailer that told you half of the movie), and the US Army goes as far as to court-martial him (again, you probably knew that bit), but an eleventh hour victory sees Doss able to carry out his wishes (surprise, surprise) and he goes with his company to that titular strategic hell hole as a medic.

In this first half Gibson does his very best to make this the cheesefest it appeared to be. Syrupy orchestral music cues are ladled over widescreen shots of Virginia’s natural beauty. Slow motion is employed to stir emotional beats with all the subtlety of a Baywatch volleyball montage. There’s speechifying and chest-swelling triumphs over adversity. Hacksaw Ridge bleeds red white and blue well before it’s really started bleeding at all.

And that’s okay. Gibson goes hard on this golden vision of idealistic American patriotism with a plan in mind. That trailer gave you glimpses of Hacksaw Ridge, but it quite strategically leaves out a lot of information. When the film switches, it really switches. It’s a not-so-subtle trick but one that packs a mean punch.

The film’s second half asked this viewer questions of himself, as the intense battle atop Hacksaw Ridge became a thrilling and deeply immersive experience. I’ve increasingly found voyeuristic depictions of death in warfare questionable, especially when the method of their depiction clearly aims to glamourise the subject. The beautification of combat is something you might well imagine Gibson being guilty of (and, at the end of the picture, he most certainly is). But, when we truly first encounter the horrors laying in wait at Okinawa, these fears are outright blown to bits. Sentimentality is largely decimated.

The unflinching spectacle of Hacksaw Ridge is a feather in its cap, but – and this came as something of a surprise – it’s not the only one. Garfield’s none-more-earnest Forrest-Gump-finds-religion routine is a mite more layered than it initially appeared. Like a happy puppy that you can’t quite bring yourself to bring to heel, there’s something irrepressible about Doss that carries the film. And Garfield isn’t the only one here who earns respect in spite of himself. Of all people, Vince Vaughn is trotted out early doors as the platoon’s sergeant, and initially he comes across as a third-rate R Lee Ermy. However, he too finds a way to add shade to the black and white lines he’s given to work with. And if you can get me on the side of Vince Vaughn then the likes of Sam Worthington become forgone conclusions.

Gibson’s predilection for the overblown does come back to haunt him. On more than one occasion Doss is depicted as Christlike. With fist-down-your-throat intensity. But what’s more intriguing are other suggestions seeded in the first hour that flourish in the second; that his religious fervor might be that of an unbalanced mind. War is insane. Could it be, in the face of unspeakable danger and carnage, that it would take an unbalanced mind to excel and achieve things we might only imagine Marvel superheroes capable of?

I want to tread carefully here as this is based in truth. Desmond T Doss is near enough the definition of an American hero, and I certainly do not mean to besmirch his accomplishments or his character. But his depiction in this film opens up unexpected avenues of conversation about what it takes to function in a situation so staggeringly obscene. The overlap between war and religion and the fervor that one brings the other is as complex and relevant today as it was in 1945. Is it possible that through the patriotic actions of a God-loving American hero, we might understand those that we deem great evils? Doss is not comparable to a terrorist or suicide bomber in his actions. Of course he isn’t. But in the structure of his thinking? Hacksaw Ridge unexpectedly gives plenty of ideas to chew over.

Surprises like that can’t quite be spoiled by a trailer. Hacksaw Ridge is two films. One is cornier than a box of Kellogg’s. The other is a propulsive onslaught for the head and the heart alike.

Score:  4

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