The cinematic resurrection of Mel Gibson is gathering momentum. After considerable time in the wilderness he returned to form in the acting department with gritty thriller Blood Father earlier this year. Hacksaw Ridge sees him behind the camera on his first directorial duties since Apocalypto in 2006 and the results are hugely impressive. It’s an emotionally powerful film which graphically exposes the horror of warfare, but is ultimately an uplifting tribute to heroism and testament to one man’s remarkable humanity, courage and faith.
Essentially a biopic, Hacksaw Ridge is based on the astounding true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a deeply religious pacifist who enlisted in the army as a medic during World War II despite being classified as ‘a conscientious objector.’ While his abhorrence for violence and refusal to handle a weapon elicited venomous disdain from the army, Desmond stood firm on his steadfast beliefs and desire to serve his country. Ridiculed, persecuted and pressured to quit, Doss persevered and ultimately went to war where he saved the lives of 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa.
Powerful storytelling, Gibson’s mastery of his craft and a fine central performance from Andrew Garfield are the film’s strongest assets. Garfield is truly a revelation as Doss, bringing an endearing and almost childlike innocence to his character while utterly convincing in the darker moments where his faith is tested to the max. His performance is aided by strong support from an excellent ensemble of Australian acting talent. Teresa Palmer gives an affecting turn as Desmond’s love interest Dorothy. Their romance is sweetly set up in the early stages and given extra weight as the film progresses. Rachel Griffiths and Hugo Weaving are excellent as Desmond’s parents, with Weaving particularly compelling as a wounded veteran, haunted by his experiences in the first world war and utterly dismayed with his son’s decision to enlist. Of the non-Australian players, Vince Vaughn is the most notable. In an inspired piece of casting Vaughn convinces as a hard edged drill sergeant but his familiar frat boy charm allows for a humanistic and humourous side to come through. Gibson doesn’t hold back with his depiction of war’s brutality. The final hour of the film puts the viewer onto the battlefield and contains some of the most violent, bloody and explicit war scenes committed to film. The hellish nature of combat is recounted in graphic, uncompromising detail. By no means gratuitous, it all serves to further illustrate the immense bravery of Desmond Doss. The overall dramatic impact is exhilarating.
There are definite references to other famous war films here with Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan being notable influences. That’s not to say that Hacksaw Ridge is derivative. The brilliantly structured screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, top notch cast and Gibson’s assured handling of the material are impressive enough to elevate the film into the same league as these other revered works. Gibson has consistently delivered the goods as a director in the past with the aforementioned Apocalypto as well as Braveheart and The Passion of The Christ. Hacksaw Ridge is another monumental achievement from a fine filmmaker. A triumphant comeback.