It would at first seem ironic that Mel Gibson, a director who’s demonstrated a clear fascination and adeptness with onscreen violence, would take on a movie like Hacksaw Ridge, about the life and heroism of a Medal of Honor-winning pacifist. As it turns out, however, Gibson happens to be a natural fit for the story, which, like his other films, revolves around a man who’s had an intimate relationship with violence and whose devotion to his faith and people knows no bounds. After about a decade away from making movies, the controversial actor/director hasn’t lost a step, delivering a moving, bloody, unabashedly old-fashioned hero’s tale that harkens back to a time before Hollywood hagiography was considered corny.
The stranger-than-fiction story is that of Corporal Desmond T. Doss (played with country-boy charm by the ever-improving Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who joined the army months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He refused to touch much less fire a rifle, even during training, and aspired to be a medic on the field, saving lives instead of taking them.
The first act follows his ascension from boyhood to manhood in ‘20s and ‘30s Rockwellian Virginia, spotlighting a handful of formative traumas and moral epiphanies that eventually led him to him serving in the army in such a unique, unprecedented capacity. Upon joining the Army, his beliefs earned him brutal abuse from both peers and superiors, though he stood by both his commitment to serve and his devotion to non-violence.
The first half of the movie feels a bit trite in certain respects: Doss’ relationship with eventual wife Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) is too stilted and manicured, and the boot camp beatdowns and Army courtroom politicking feel like hazy, less-intense flashbacks to A Few Good Men. Garfield and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan do some good character-building here though, focusing on Doss’ philosophical conundrums and frustrations that mostly stem from his fraught relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving, phenomenal), who surprisingly develops into one of the most dimensional characters in the film. Another standout is Doss’ rival and fellow soldier, Smitty (Luke Bracey), who misreads the outsider’s anti-violence lifestyle as cowardice, only to be proven wrong once they hit the battlefield.
After his company is driven back and retreats down the titular cliff during the Battle of Okinawa, Doss stays behind, scouring the blood-soaked battlefield for wounded soldiers, dodging bullets and pushing himself past the point of exhaustion on his way to eventually saving the lives of 75 men. Some have accused Gibson of having a sort of filmic bloodlust, an obsession with glorifying the mutilation of the human body in graphic. He indeed employs a heavy amount of gory, gruesome effects here that will make even horror fans cringe (this is easily one of the goriest movies I’ve seen in recent memory), but for the most part, the violence feels appropriate.
It’s important that we as the audience understand just how terrifying and ungodly dangerous Doss’ one-man mission is (he’s sneaking through and around a literal army of Japanese soldiers), and Gibson makes damn sure we get the picture. It feels like anyone could be shot in the face at any point, and this sense of urgency and stakes comes directly from the gruesome-but-accurate depiction of death during wartime. There are some moments that feel too caught up in spectacle (Garfield roundhouse kicks a grenade in trailer-friendly slo-mo), but they’re few and far between.
The anguish and determination on Garfield’s face as he re-enacts Doss’ acts of heroism is what truly sells the stakes; it’s an incredibly physical role, and nearly the entire third act sees him sprinting, hauling, diving, and basically working his ass off. It’s one of his best performances, and even in the stiff early scenes, he brings a certain positive energy that keeps things interesting and does the real Doss justice. The success of any biographical movie rests on the lead actor’s ability to humanize whoever they’re embodying, and Garfield does not disappoint.
Also impressive is Vince Vaughn, who’s given the unenviable task of playing the obligatory shit-talking, hardass drill sergeant that’s in every Army movie ever, but he’s good at it, playing up his strengths as a natural loudmouth while toning down the silliness audiences typically expect from him. Similarly, all of Doss’ fellow infantrymen fit snugly into archetypes (there’s a tough guy, a pretty boy, a clown, a gentle giant), though across the board the actors breathe life into the flat characterizations.
There are some genuinely touching bromance moments throughout as well, particularly a scene between Garfield and Bracey under the stars that’s surprisingly the most romantic moment in the movie. Hacksaw Ridge can be a wobbly mess at times, but brilliant moments like these resonate far more than any minor missteps.
Though it's a bit of a wobbly mess at times, Hacksaw Ridge ultimately winds up being a deeply moving character study about an unlikely American hero.