If there's one thing Hacksaw Ridge is determined to show us, it's that war is hell. With Okinawa standing in for Hades in Mel Gibson's first directorial outing since Apocalypto (2006), there's no literal lakes of fire or red devils. Instead the opening depicts soldiers set ablaze, bone splitting demolitions, spurting blood and the kind of torturous screams better suited to a horror picture. If Spielberg showed us how grueling and sense-shattering war is in Saving Private Ryan, Gibson is determine to show us the hellish atrocities of war in brutal detail.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the story of Desmond Doss. A southern man as unfaltering in his beliefs as he is determined to help on the battlefield. A Seventh-day Adventist and Conscientious Objector that refused to carry a rifle into battle, but was hell-bent on serving as a medic. With all the rousing celebration of human courage Doss' story promises, it's a wonder that his story hasn't already been committed to celluloid. Hated by fellow trainees in his company and despised by his superiors, Andrew Garfield's Doss is steadfast in his duty to help in the war. It's the kind of triumph over adversity that wins awards.
There's a lot of grey area in war and never before has it been highlighted with such a conflicting character. Whether it's intentional or misfiring, Hacksaw Ridge's shifts in message only serve to short change the other. As we've seen in Apocalypto and to a greater extent The Passion of the Christ, Gibson can stare unflinchingly into pretty much any wound, no matter how grizzly. True to form, there are moments in Hacksaw Ridge, that could turn the most armored stomach. It's merciless in delivering the terrible awe of what men can do to one another in combat. Yet, there are moments of flag-waving overkill that dilute the reckless atrocities. Victorious swells of brass fanfare the actions of our marines. It makes perfect sense when defenseless Dodds, staying faithful in his belief, scurries alone through the murky battlefield. Armed with nothing but his courage and iron will to save his brothers, it is indeed a celebration of honour. However, when a marine blows a Japanese foxhole to king come, obliterating the enemies inside and we're asked to cheer, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It's a harsh contradiction, for sure.
If you're making a war movie, you have to pick a side. The opposing force will always be relegated to faceless troops, intent on the execution of "your side". Without the slant of the perspective the whole endeavor is a mish-mashed conflict of ideologies. Yet, when the venture is a moralistic one, it seems odd that there are moments of reverie in the very actions your main character is so against - so much so he has faced the crushing trials to get there.
While the moral heart of the story is compromised by the thrilling depictions of battle, the hellish representation of the trauma suffered helps to bring it back down. However, there's also enough of this blood-soaked purgatory for Gibson to lodge some christ-like iconography. While the baptismal cleaning of Doss is squeezed through post-battle practicality, his ascension to the heavens after saving his brothers at any cost is heavy handed.
Thankfully, some of the obliterated shrapnel manages to coalesce into something you can appreciate come credit call and there are true moments of well-executed action, as well as being emotionally effecting. Just like it's protagonist, Hacksaw Ridge is a puzzling contradiction, and while it's efforts are honorable, it's aspiration is a little confused.
2* - Casualties of Bore