Although the film's marketing seems to have bent over backwards to hide it, "Hacksaw Ridge" is every inch a Mel Gibson movie. In telling the true story of WWII Army medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a war hero whose deeply held religious views led him to enlist in the army despite an adamant refusal to even pick up a weapon, Gibson is given free rein to indulge his pet obsessions as a filmmaker. Like his prior films, "Hacksaw Ridge" revolves around a man who suffers enormously for his beliefs; Gibson remains fascinated by the idea of faith as an endurance test.
As a movie about faith that's also a merciless, viscera-drenched reminder that war is hell, "Hacksaw Ridge" can sometimes feel like a story at odds with itself. But Andrew Garfield's strong lead performance and Gibson's sure hand as a director of action ensures that his film is often quite powerful and undeniably effective at what it sets out to achieve.
We begin with Doss's early years in small-town Lynchburg, Virginia, and his home life growing up with a drunken, abusive World War I veteran father (Hugo Weaving, going big and broad with his performance) and long-suffering mother (Rachel Griffiths), two relationships that forged his belief system. These early scenes are heavy on sun-dappled Americana -- Gibson aims for the feel of living inside the paintings of Norman Rockwell -- and we see Doss develop a sweetly chaste romance with Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the hospital in his hometown. It's all fine, but a little hokey, and thankfully Gibson gets most of the melodrama out of his system early.
As the town's young men head off to war, Doss wants to perform his patriotic duty but, holding strictly to the commandment against killing, he refuses to pick up a gun. He believes that by enlisting as a medic, he can serve by saving lives instead of taking them. We follow him to boot camp, where his officers (headed by drill sergeant Vince Vaughn) see him as a disciplinary concern, and attempt to drum him out of the army by pitting the rest of the platoon against him until he's enduring regular beatings from fellow soldiers who view his actions (or lack thereof) as simple cowardice.
He's eventually taken to trial, and the film morphs into a courtroom drama for a time as Doss finds himself threatened with court martial for disobeying the orders of his commanding officers. But when everyone is reminded that, "Hey what he's doing isn't illegal," he's free to carry on his merry way, and is shipped off to Japan to join in the bloody Battle of Okinawa.
"Hacksaw Ridge" is at its strongest during this second half, when we're allowed to see what Doss's brand of heroism actually looks like in action. He was the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, and we get to see exactly why that is. The battle sequences are exciting and intense, and they also contain enough gore and violence to put most slasher movies to shame: bodies are maimed, burned, blown apart, intestines spilled, corpses are used as shields. It's grim, gruesome stuff.
But as brilliant as the filmmaking often is, it's here where there's a bit of a disconnect in the film. For a movie that's ostensibly a celebration of pacifism, it's a bit odd to see the carnage presented with such obvious relish. While recognizing that those scenes serve to establish stakes, underlining the sheer amount of courage it took for Doss to walk into battle without even the protection of a rifle, there's still a sense that the film is trying to have its cake and eat it, too.
Andrew Garfield's performance is crucial in allowing the film to work as well as it does. The actor has always been an intensely likeable screen presence; he's predictably warm and charming in the early scenes, but he's equally adept at playing a grimly determined soldier at war. While Gibson's instinct is to deify Doss, Garfield shows us hints of darkness within. He shows us exactly how Desmond Doss is able to reconcile his beliefs through his actions. The film that surrounds him, however, is another story entirely.