Note: This review contains SPOILERS. Even though the story is based on well-documented true events from some 70 years ago, fair warning.
When the young Desmond Doss is growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, he is constantly fighting with his brother, sometimes to shockingly violent results. It’s as if they’re Cain and Abel reborn.
When the wounded Private Desmond Doss is lowered from a cliff in Okinawa via pulley, the camera swirls around and ultimately beneath him, producing the effect Doss is actually ascending into heaven.
When Private Doss is cleansed of the blood and sweat and mud of war, the water drenches him from above as the sun glows behind him. It’s as if he’s being baptized anew.
And when Private Doss comes literally face to face with an enemy soldier who would kill him without pause if he could, Private Doss does not vanquish his enemy. He tends to the man’s wounds.
Director Mel Gibson dishes out the symbolism and the sermonizing in blunt and unrelenting fashion in “Hacksaw Ridge,” a gruesomely effective and ultraviolent World War II movie about a man who was so non-violent he refused to pick up a gun even though he was with a combat unit stationed in the bloody hell of Okinawa in 1945.
Gibson calls himself a “traditionalist” Catholic who believes in the pre-Vatican II Latin mass. He has literally built his own church on a mountain. He has wrestled with some ugly demons in a most public fashion, and has just recently claimed the media’s reportage of his meltdown of a decade ago was nothing short of a “crucifixion.”
We will separate the artist from the art for this bulk of this review, but even though Gibson is not present in this film as an actor, his faith and his fervor — and his undeniable skills as a director of brutally searing work, including “Braveheart” and “Apocalypto” — permeate nearly every frame of “Hacksaw Ridge,” which is based on the incredible true story of the first conscientious objector in American history to become a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
If it’s subtlety you’re looking for, you’ve entered the wrong theater.
Andrew Garfield (from the latest round of “Spider-Man” movies”), an onscreen specialist in earnestness and quiet resilience, is well cast and does a fine job as Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who grew up in a home where his violent, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a World War I veteran ravaged by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (before it was given a name), abused his wife (Rachel Griffiths) and sons.
Two pivotal moments in Doss’ upbringing lead to a commitment to God and to an unwavering belief in non-violence — even in times of war. He enlists in the Army as a medic, proclaiming he’s going to save lives while those around him are taking life.
Working from a solid screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan that nevertheless embraces many a wartime cliché (including a barracks filled with familiar stereotypes), Gibson divides the main section of “Hacksaw Ridge” into two distinct halves:
• At boot camp, Doss stuns his fellow enlistees, his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and his CO (Sam Worthington) by declaring he literally won’t even touch a rifle.
Doss’s fellow soldiers torment him and beat him. The Army tries to have Doss declared a Section 8. Court martial proceedings are initiated. But Doss will not quit and he will not give up, and the Army is stuck with a soldier in a combat unit who won’t pick up a weapon.
• In Okinawa, Doss is with the 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry, in the Battle of Okinawa, as they try to take a 400-foot cliff the Americans calls Hacksaw Ridge. As bullets hail all around Doss, as grenades explode, as soldiers are engulfed in flames and reduced to fragments by artillery fire, Doss repeatedly risks his life to tend to the wounded — and adheres to his vow to never touch a weapon, under any circumstances.
Gibson ups the violence to levels beyond “Saving Private Ryan,” in the process proving the MPAA is virtually incapable giving a film the NC-17 rating on bloodshed alone. This is intense, disturbing, grisly fare — and quite probably one of the more realistic depictions of the true nature of armed combat. You watch these young men desperately fighting for their lives, seeing their brothers in arms getting killed, sometimes suffering severe injuries, and you wonder how any soldier emerges from war WITHOUT suffering from PTSD.
“Hacksaw Ridge” features an international cast, and some of the actors do a better job of sustaining their American accents than others. (Garfield was born in Los Angeles but raised in England. Hugo Weaving was born in Nigeria to British parents. Sam Worthington, Rachel Griffiths and Teresa Palmer, who plays Doss’ wife Dorothy, are Australian.)
Vince Vaughn, who of course is Midwest through and through, takes the familiar role of the taskmaster drill sergeant and infuses it with surprising touches here and there, resulting in one of the best performances of his career. Garfield overdoes it at times with the puppy-dog grin and the wet-eyed determination, but when the grit hits the fan and Doss performs astonishing heroics, time and again risking his life to save others, Garfield rises to the occasion.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is faithful to the story of Desmond Doss in every sense of the word.
Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Mel Gibson and written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. Rated R (for intense, prolonged, realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly, bloody images). Running time: 130 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.