It’s easy to get excited about a filmmaker returning to his craft after a long hiatus, and throwing around the phrase “return to form” becomes part of that hype. Mel Gibson has certainly cemented himself in Hollywood history, and with his new film, “Hacksaw Ridge,” he seeks to remind us why he is (or at least was) so revered. Telling the incredible true story of a nonviolent World War II soldier, the film plays perfectly to Gibson’s sensibilities, but there are a number of moments where his take on the material obscures its message about faith and the power of belief. “Hacksaw Ridge” is most definitely a Mel Gibson picture; so overwhelmingly, in fact, that it feels anything but new. I suppose in that sense, it is a “return to form.”
Country bumpkin Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) grows up in Virginia with his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) under the care of their WWI veteran and alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving) and his religious mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Right from the get go, Gibson does not hold back on the sentimentality of Doss’s upbringing as he over-saturates the boy’s pre-war life to an almost comical degree. The first half hour or so is littered with Old Hollywood flourishes, where critical moments in Doss’s formative years are always played in slow motion, and his more carefree instances provoke plenty of eye-rolling.
After winning the affections of a local nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), Desmond’s patriotism nudges him into the army, much to his family’s chagrin. This is where Weaving gets to shine, as Tom’s drunken ramblings on the loss of his comrades during the Great War and his reaction to both his sons’ determination to fight for their country - which pierces him like a speeding bullet - unearth the great potential that the formerly typecast actor always had. Weaving, usually a go-to choice for sci-fi and fantasy roles, projects a strength and a softness that is startling. He is fascinating to watch. Desmond eventually gets the final say and enlists, beginning the “Full Metal Jacket” training section of the story that feels a little too “Full Metal Jacket” for a WWII drama. Even Vince Vaughn, playing the platoon’s sergeant, channels a tame R. Lee Ermey that is ultimately ineffective.
It isn’t until Doss refuses to hold a rifle that “Hacksaw Ridge” starts to become fairly compelling. The army, completely flabbergasted by the notion of a soldier eager to serve but not to fight, tries to flank Doss’s immovable faith at every turn, attempting to punish him with a retracted furlough to see Dorothy, and an eventual arrest for insubordination. Garfield’s work during these scenes (not to mention the rest of the film) keeps the effort grounded to a certain extent. Compared to the other characters, Desmond is something of a peculiarity, but Garfield manages to balance the conscientious objector’s (or “conscientious collaborator” as Doss calls himself) exuberant piety with a clear humanity. Watch his reaction in jail after refusing to hold a rifle so that his furlough may be granted; you can practically see his faith tearing into his desire to return to dearest Dorothy. It’s his best work since “The Social Network.”
With Doss’s rights protected by the Constitution, he and his squad are sent to Okinawa to take on the Japanese. Cue the Mel Gibson gore fest. Though they are impressive on a technical level, the battle sequences that dominate the second half of the picture complicate the film’s nonviolent themes. “Hacksaw Ridge” is by no means an anti-war film, since its protagonist willingly marches into battle, but there is a point amidst all the carnage where you may start to wonder if the violence serves a purpose other than pure shock value. Of course there will plenty of be blood in a war film, but when images of burning bodies and corpses as buffets for rats are repeated endlessly on top of other appalling moments, such as a soldier picking up the torso of a fallen comrade and using it as a shield while darting full speed ahead firing at the enemy, “too much” isn’t enough to express one’s disillusionment with this kind of violence.
Had Gibson kept his camera tight on Doss’s horrified reaction to the chaos as he risks his life navigating the battlefield to patch wounds and give morphine, the film might have stayed on-message. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Gibson is far too interested in executing multi-angle battle scenes just to demonstrate that he hasn’t lost his edge during his 10-year absence from directing. Sound design is admittedly riveting, but what’s sad about the end result is that it feels like nothing more than an attempt to one-up “Saving Private Ryan,” which (surprise!) it does not.
Gibson’s greatest admirers will probably welcome him back to Hollywood with open arms, but I am curious to see how they would react if they were told his newest film was about a man with an unflappable faith, who, after falling in love with the woman of his dreams, is called into a conflict that tests his strongest beliefs. If that sounds familiar to you, it should, because that is also the basic premise of “Braveheart.” (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.) All comparisons aside, “Hacksaw Ridge” is still a shaky film that buries an astounding true story about one man’s determination to hold true to his nonviolent beliefs underneath a ridiculously violent war film that feels far more discordant than uplifting.