After a ten-year directing absence, Mel Gibson returns with Hacksaw Ridge, a visceral WWII battlefield drama that probes the morality of war, writes Natalie Stendall.
It follows the true story of American army medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who volunteered for service on the condition he would never have to fire a weapon.
Prepared to enter the formidable Okinawa battlefield unarmed, Doss’s religious conviction opens a window on the senselessness and brutality of war.
Gibson’s fifth feature gets off to a shaky start with a soppy romance that’s dripping with Hollywood gloss and doe-eyed flirtation.
This first act is the film’s most reductive, attributing Doss’s entire moral code to a mere handful of childhood events.
Thankfully, Hacksaw Ridge gets over its mushy side pretty quickly and a compelling performance from Hugo Weaving as Doss’s father, a World War One survivor, tempers Doss’s otherwise sugary adolescence with the devastating reality of life after war.
Exposition out of the way, it’s easy to forget these early flaws as Doss enters the army.
His refusal to handle a weapon brings him into direct conflict with superiors concerned about discipline and the message this sends to the rest of the unit.
The issues here are huge - from the morality of killing and cowardice, to the political necessity of war and the untapped potential of conscientious objectors - but Gibson’s dexterous treatment gives us plenty of space to contemplate.
Garfield, fresh from Scorsese’s intricate and affecting religious persecution drama Silence, taps into a similar, and no less potent, internal conflict. By the time we reach the Ridge - the brutal Okinawa battlefield - all memories of the film’s sentimental opener are obliterated.
The combat is violent, unexpected and devastating. Never gratuitous, the barrage of killing is heartbreaking. The fear and dread is palpable: everything we might expect from Emmy-nominated writer for The Pacific, Robert Shenkkan. Unarmed among the chaos, Doss encapsulates the senselessness of all this violence.
Hacksaw Ridge is bloody, gory and emotionally exhausting: a film experienced on nerve endings. Yet through all its bloodshed, Hacksaw Ridge gives due reverence to the heroes whose true story it tells: the epilogue is a respectful testament to their bravery.