TL;DR – Hacksaw Ridge might be one of the best war movies I have ever seen, stunning visuals, a strong cast and emotive storytelling, I highly recommend going to see Hacksaw Ridge
Score – 5 out of 5 stars
So here we are in 2016, the Cubs are doing well at baseball, England voted to leave the European Union, and I’m talking about a Mel Gibson directed film which may just be my film of the year … ok at this point we all just have to agree that 2016 has been a really weird year. But strange as it may be, nothing can take away from the power that is Hacksaw Ridge, it is a stunning film, but also a really emotional film, and all of that comes down to the amazing power of the cast, the work of Mel Gibson with direction, and the rest of the crew in producing such a powerful film.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the dramatised but true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who during World War Two became a hero during the Battle of Okinawa through an act of undeniable bravery even though he was a conscientious objector due to his religious beliefs. In many respects, Hacksaw Ridge is just as much a biopic about Doss as it is a compelling war story and this is part of what makes it so compelling. These days I find it hard to engage with war films because they tend to fall into either two camps, a glossy film which sanitises war to be a noble or glory filled endeavour usually for god and country and the all-American way, or conversely they use the war movie genre as a cover to get away with fetishizing violence and gore. Of course, both of these extremes ignore the reality of war, that it is messy, god awful, but a sometimes necessary affair. Indeed in recent years only Fury has come close to capturing war as it is. Hacksaw Ridge avoids falling into this trap because its narrative is focused on one character, Doss and telling his story so it allows us to see the war through his very particular viewpoint. Hacksaw Ridge shows war as it is, necessary, but not glorious, cruel and indiscriminate, with the ability to bring out the best and worst in people, and most significantly, war does not just leave its marks on the battlefield.
It’s been ten years since Mel Gibson last directed a film, but Hacksaw Ridge shows that he has lost none of his talents, and in fact, this is the best direction of a movie Gibson has ever done. Now can’t escape talking about Mel Gibson when discussing this film because one of the many things Hacksaw Ridge is, is indeed a comeback film for the once Hollywood superstar who suffered a very public and very self-made fall from grace. However, Hacksaw Ridge also is very typical of Gibson’s work, it is a film about someone who puts their personal convictions above doing when is easy, it is steeped in both overt and hidden religious symbolism, and it involves large scale but impeccable produced battle sequences. It is almost like Hacksaw Ridge is the culmination of the work Gibson did in Braveheart, Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto. However, it actually transcends anything Gibson has done in the past, both with regards to emotive storytelling and in a more board technical excellence sense.
One of the areas where this film excels in is its casting, every role from Doss down to what could be normally considered small parts like Lt. Manville (Ryan Corr) is played expertly by the cast. In a movie like this if you miscast Doss your film would be a failure before it left the gates, but Andrew Garfield gives the performance of his career here. It would be very easy for Doss to be played as too earnest, too naïve, too yokel and while the film does skirt those extremes it never gets there, instead what we have is a very determined, very devoted and very compelling character to which Garfield deserves all the Oscar credit he will be getting for this role. With one big exception, this was a very Australian affair with the casting, almost a who’s who of the current amazing talent from Down Under. Hugo Weaving is really compelling as Doss’ abusive and drunk father who was broken in many ways by the war to end all wars World War One, this lets you understand his character, to sympathise with him, but not to forgive him for what he does to his family, like his long-suffering wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Then you have the men cast to play roles in Doss’ rifle company which all give nuanced and powerful performances. Sam Worthington who plays Captain Glover gives his best performance as the leader of a company who has no idea what to do with a conscientious objector who won’t hold a rifle, indeed Glover probably has the biggest character arc in the film. The rest of the company Smitty (Luke Bracey), Hollywood (Luke Pegler), Teach (Richard Pyros), Grease (Ben Mingay), Vito (Firass Dirani), Ralph (Damien Thomlinson) & Ghoul (Goran D. Kleut) give such compelling and nuanced performances you almost forget for a moment that the film opens on the battle of Hacksaw Ridge and that we will be coming back there. There is a moment where the clear new soldiers walk up to the front line and join with another company that was already there, and the stark contrast is not just down to the presentation, but in the performances of people like Ryan Corr, you can see the horror or knowledge of what is to come in their eyes. Indeed during those combat sequences everyone commits and you can feel it in the performances, from the actors to the stuntmen, to the extras, everyone was putting 100% into this film. The one big surprise was Vince Vaughn who played Sgt. Howell, I was actually surprised to see him in a film like this and was a little bit concerned that this was just not the film for him. Well, I am glad to be wrong, yes Mr Vaughn brings some levity to his role as the drill sergeant, but he also brings conviction and power to his performance.
So in the next two sections, I am going to talk about the themes as well as the action sequences of Hacksaw Ridge. While I will be talking in general and indeed this is a true story so you may already know about the story before going in, I will engage [SPOILER WARNING] for the rest of the review.
There are a lot of themes being touched upon in Hacksaw Ridge, from the realities and impacts of war, to how militaries and people of power deal with people who are different, however clearly the biggest theme on show here is that of religion and conviction. This is because Hacksaw Ridge is a story of a real person, Desmond Doss, and for him, religion was clearly a strong part of his life and it would be a disservice to downplay or mishandle that. Now given we are talking about Mel Gibson who directed the Passion of the Christ, it should not be that surprising that he would direct a film with religious themes, but here he uses them to create an incredible emotive story. Hollywood has historically been really bad at showing religion or religious conviction on screen, because they only use religion as a way to define a character or as a way of creating a stereotype, or it is so ham-fisted or trite that it becomes painful to watch. Part of what makes Hacksaw Ridge work is that we are focusing on one character who is a real person, with real convictions and views on faith, and that give it more weight than it would usually have. Religion forms part of Doss’ motivations and is a powerful driving force behind his heroic actions that lead to him being awarded a Medal of Honor. Also, there is none of that saccharine moralising or cookie-cutter characterization that you get in many other ‘religious’ films made for the American market. Because of this and because of its setting Hacksaw Ridge creates powerful symbolism not just with its overt themes of sacrifice, conviction and faith, but in the subtle framing of persecution, baptism, rebirth, and ascension. Though of course some of those subtle themes are less that subtle when you literally show someone washing the blood off himself. However, this powerful use of themes, combined with the setting and the conviction of the actors created one of the most emotional films I have seen in a very long while.
Now while the casting, acting and themes all play into this film’s success, the other area we need to talk about is the action sequences, and they’re stunning. Now most of the action happens in the second half of the film, so once again this could be considered a spoiler for you. As I said most war films either sanitise or conversely fetishize the violence, and Mel Gibson with Braveheart and Passion of the Christ has been guilty of both of these extremes, but here in Hacksaw Ridge, he finds a better way. Now it needs to be said this is a very violent film, a lot of people die, in quite graphic ways, indeed some of the people on the battlefield have been dead for quite a while. In this film, you will see the brutality of war in every way, and that is because it is so well acted, choreographed and filmed. These were not small simple battle sequences that would have been easy, well easier, to film, they are extensive sequences full of explosions, flames, bullets. From a simple technical perspective, it is amazing how some of these sequences were captured on film. You’re dealing with hundreds of squibs in actors and imitation explosions in the ground, uneven terrain, massive number of cast and extras, and add flames and dirt and shrapnel, it is a disaster waiting to happen if you don’t have professionals running the show. I thought the Battle of the Bastards was the most impressive battle sequence I had seen all year and indeed for a long while, well Hacksaw Ridge takes it to a whole new level. For me what elevates this movie, other than everything else I have said, is the use of fire, in this case from flamethrowers. You know for a while know though filmmakers like the excellent Slow Mo Guys we have shown the beauty of fire in slow motion, but you forget why they were made, they were made to kill people. Now this is not to say all the violence is handled as well as I have said, indeed there are a couple of overly stylised sections that slip into that fetishizing of violence, most notably towards the end of the film where a perfectly formed trail of blood that falls in slow motion from a Japanese Officer.
While I loved this film, there were a couple of small things that could have been improved on a little. While most of the effects, both practical and visual, were great, there was a sequence with a battleship firing its main cannons that just looked fake, it needed a bit more work. As well as this, they kind of built up this dynamic between Doss and his family that kind of doesn’t go anywhere.
In the end, this was a film which I had to spend a couple of minutes composing myself at the end because it had a real emotional impact on me, in fact, parts of this review was difficult to write for that same reason. My only fear is that it will get lost this week opening the same time as Doctor Strange in places like the US, and it might just get missed by the general public. It’s not an easy film to watch but then neither is films like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, but it is a powerful film. If you get the chance I highly recommend you go see it, this may be my film of the year, I rate it that highly, and it deserves all the success it gets this award season.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Mel Gibson
Written by – Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkkan
Music by – Rupert Gregson-Williams
Starring – Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Ryan Corr, Luke Pegler, Luke Bracey & Vince Vaughn
Rating – Australia: MA; Canada: 14A; NZ: R; UK: na; USA: R