It’s not in any way a “good” film, but Hacksaw Ridge is one hell of a watch, nonetheless.
Hacksaw Ridge is fascinating. Absolutely and compulsively so. I don’t think Mel Gibson as a director has ever made a good film – Braveheart is bad, fight me – but he also appears to be completely incapable of making boring films. More so than the vast majority of filmmakers out there today, Gibson pours his all into every film he directs to such a tangible and unashamed degree. To watch a Mel Gibson film is to fully immerse oneself in the complex, complicated, and frequently contradictory headspace of Mel Gibson. One that, as will probably come as no surprise to anyone with even the slightest familiarity with Gibson the man, is often completely nuts, heavily obsessed with persecuted heroes and suffering, very openly Christian, and always almost-pornographically violent.
You can probably see why Hacksaw Ridge, then, is both very timely and also incredibly wrong for the current social landscape. Films, after all, can gain a certain power or effect brought upon them by the state of society at large at the time of their release, oftentimes unintentional but there all the same. The weekend that Hacksaw Ridge was released here in the UK, Donald Trump signed what has now been referred to as the “Muslim Ban,” prohibiting travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries regardless of whether the person undertaking that journey is a legally recognised citizen of the United States, if they were cleared for prior arrival and settlement whilst in the middle of coming to the US as the ban came down, or anything else. It’s a hateful, discriminatory, and disgusting act of persecution visited upon members of the Muslim faith by White Christian males with persecution complexes. That same weekend, Mel Gibson releases a film about how White Christian males were unfairly persecuted by society and the system at large for their religious beliefs and principles.
Now, should this be counted as a knock against Hacksaw Ridge as a whole? Not really, no. Sure, it’s incredibly tone-deaf for the current landscape and helmed by a noted bigoted anti-Semite, but it’s also been in development for over a decade and, hopefully, time will provide enough distance that watching the film won’t cause one’s brain to find constant inadvertent links to the world outside of the film. Of course, that time is not now, and it’s particularly hard to avoid the links when Hacksaw Ridge is so sincerely stomping about with its heavy-handed persecution themes and Jesus allegories, because Mel Gibson is not a subtle filmmaker. Whereas Martin Scorsese just last month used his passion project, an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, also about persecution of White Christian males to examine questions of faith, pride, societal ignorance, and colonialism, Hacksaw Ridge is a straight-up, bona-fide, no-irony “I, a White Christian man, am being persecuted by an uncaring society for my beliefs and principles!”
The film conflates Desmond Doss’s (Andrew Garfield) pacifist ideals with his devout Christian beliefs, so an attack on the former is also seen as an attack on the latter, as the film’s endless first hour goes to great pains to remind you at every opportunity. That first hour is an absolutely mesmerising mess, by the way. For one, Mel Gibson, who primarily matured in Australia, creates a visual style and tone that, quite frankly, appears to have been a conscious attempt to create the most American film that one could possibly make. Of course, most World War II dramas have a very vintage, nostalgic, mythic vision of America – befitting the war being the last time that America could paint itself as the inarguable, uncomplicated hero of the piece that it forever sees itself as – but there’s something especially weird about it here. How Gibson enjoys oversaturating most of his shots during this first half, how much pleasure he seems to get from shooting Doss’s hometown as an ideal version of what America is, how Doss is the epitome of a kind-hearted, duty-answering, salt-of-the-earth American…
On that note, nobody in Hacksaw Ridge talks like a normal human being, particularly in the first half which is dedicated to Doss’s purgatory of wanting to serve but being forcibly held back and even court-marshalled as a result of his beliefs – and if you think that the Jesus allegories are going to get any subtler once we actually reach the battlefield, then you, my friend, have clearly never seen a Mel Gibson movie before. It’s most especially noticeable in Doss’s courtship of Nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) which is less “adorably awkward down-home folks” and more “malfunctioning animatronics attempting to approximate human behaviour,” both on script and in performances, and that’s before we even get into the deal with Doss’s family and his raging, abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) who was a World War I veteran.
The dialogue, character interactions, and scene-to-scene progressions are all embarrassingly terrible, and they are matched by performances that are even worse. Andrew Garfield’s “aww, shucks!” country bumpkin routine makes Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump look like the epitome of nuanced characterisation, Hugo Weaving seems to be channelling a drunk version of The Red Skull in his performance, and Vince Vaughn shows up as the R. Lee Ermey-type Sergeant and is exactly as hysterically miscast as that concept sounds. Oh, and Jai Courtney Joel Kinnaman Sam Worthington has been allowed back on movie sets for some reason.
That first half is so overdone, overwrought, and fascinatingly ridiculous that it almost comes off as a stealth parody of the very thing that it’s earnestly trying to be. But then, finally, after a full hour, Hacksaw Ridge makes it over to Okinawa, Japan and the titular Ridge itself in an attempt to become an anti-violence War movie, in accordance with Doss’s pacifism. Key word: “attempts.” For, remember, this is a Mel Gibson film, and if there is one thing that Mel Gibson as a director adores, it is extreme violence and lengthy, protracted sequences of our protagonist being stuck in the middle of such torture and mayhem, suffering in order to come out the other side reborn with his faith and principles unbroken. Hacksaw Ridge is no different, so what you get are some of the bloodiest, goriest, and messiest War sequences ever put to film, photographed with an almost pornographic level of pleasure by Gibson’s camera to such an extent that one can’t help but find the attempted “messaging” to be undermined somewhat.
Especially since, well, there is a sort of perverse thrill in the sheer gorn and mayhem that Gibson indulges in. There’s a visceral rawness to the second half of the film that invests legitimate tension in every one of Doss’s dashes across the battlefield; the kind where I wasn’t so much rooting for Doss to survive as a character, but more as a human being who doesn’t deserve to be ripped to shreds by heavy machine gun fire. Gibson and the film only really go big for the sequences on the Ridge twice, when Doss’s Division first take the Ridge and then are immediately driven back off the following morning, but the copious images of intestines strewn across the battlefield, limbs being blown off, heads being ripped apart by barrages of gunfire, and more during those initial sequences are more than enough to set the appropriate stakes. Again, I wouldn’t say that it works as an anti-violence screed, given just how much Gibson’s camera seems to almost fetishize the carnage he’s shooting, but it does work on a level of pure cinema.
That’s ultimately where the second half of Hacksaw Ridge ends up shining. Freed up from needing to rely on wooden dialogue delivered by the attractions from Disney’s Hall of Presidents ride, the film gains some measure of narrative investment and urgency from predominately transitioning into a more physical piece. The Jesus allegories, for example, do not stop – there’s one shot in super slo-mo of Doss effectively baptising himself clean of the blood of the battlefield, as a taster – but Gibson’s always been far better as a visual storyteller, and it works of a piece with the aggressively Nostalgic American feel of the first half, going for big corny visual cues with melodramatic deliveries in such a way that the results are weirdly endearing rather than irritating. It’s not so much that the film gains a spark of life when it reaches Okinawa, because it is clear that Gibson and co. are fully committed to the film from frame one, more that it finds a delivery system that it’s more comfortable with. There’s a reason, after all, why Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ are still the vastly more interesting and somewhat-legitimately entertaining Gibson movies.
Like I said up-top, I would not now nor ever call Hacksaw Ridge “good.” At times, it comes so close to the border of self-parody that I’m amazed that I had the self-restraint to not burst out laughing. What it is, though, is absolutely fascinating. A film pulling itself in so many contradictory directions, walking so close to the line of “stupidly ridiculous” and even dipping a toe across the “bad taste” line from time to time, yet also such a singular creation from such a, to be redundant, fascinating director, that I was incapable of being bored or unengaged as it played out in front of me. It’s a brilliant disasterpiece that, whilst I wouldn’t actively recommend seeking out or anything, is not devoid of its slightly perverse charms. In other, long-story-short words: it’s a Mel Gibson movie alright.
Callum Petch will get on the beat, merk it, then ask, “what happened?” Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!