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Movie Curiosities: Hacksaw Ridge

Given everything that’s happened with him in recent memory, the words “Directed by Mel Gibson” might be reasonable cause for some concern. Granted, it’s been a long time since his infamous tabloid meltdown back in 2006, but his reputation as a drunken antisemitic nutjob still lingers. This is also the man who gave us The Passion of the Christ in 2004, a famously violent and bloody film that nevertheless started a trend of Christian-targeted movies that somehow continues to this day.

So when I heard that Mel Gibson had come out of the woodwork to direct a film for the first time in a decade, I was genuinely worried about what insanity would come as a result. Little did I realize that the man who directed Passion of the Christ was in many ways superbly qualified to make an effective war movie.

For the uninitiated, Hacksaw Ridge is named for a pivotal strategic point at Okinawa during WWII. So this is a WWII film about Americans fighting the Japanese, which if nothing else is a welcome change of pace after so many films about killing Nazis.

Anyway, the film wastes absolutely no time in setting a tone for the war sequences. Before flashing back to start the story proper, we open with a prologue at Hacksaw Ridge, in which we see people getting burned to a cinder, blown in half, and torn to shreds by bullet fire, all while screaming in agony. As the film continues, we see rats and maggots feasting on decomposing corpses, not to mention guts and viscera strewn throughout the battlefield, all in terrifying detail. Even the explosions are drenched in pitch-black smoke, made to look legitimately terrifying and hellish without a trace of the adrenaline-packed thrill we typically get with Hollywood pyrotechnics.

If this is what it looks like when a legitimately insane sadist directs a film to portray the horrors of war, then maybe it’s something we should allow to happen more often. But I’m getting ahead of myself — almost all of this stuff is confined to the second half of the movie.

While the film does dramatize the American invasion of Hacksaw Ridge, its first and foremost objective is to dramatize the life and times of Desmond Doss (here played by Andrew Garfield). To make a long story short, Doss was an army medic at Hacksaw Ridge. After Japanese forces had pushed back the latest American offensive, Doss stayed on the battlefield to singlehandedly deliver 75 of his wounded countrymen into friendly hands from behind enemy lines. This extraordinary feat earned Doss the Medal of Honor — the first one ever awarded to a conscientious objector. That’s right: Doss saved so many lives even though he never picked up a gun and he never fired a single shot.

(Side note: Doss was also awarded two Bronze Stars for action in the Philippines, which the movie completely omits.)

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Desmond’s father (Tom Doss, played by Hugo Weaving) is a WWI veteran, constantly struggling with a crippling alcohol addiction and survivor’s guilt over all his friends laying dead in Arlington Cemetery. He’s an abusive father and a textbook case of PTSD, but at least he has the good sense to know as much and make sure his family knows it too.

As for Bertha Doss (Desmond’s mother, played by Rachel Griffiths), she’s very much a God-fearing pacifist. She’s also the nurturing mother figure in the stereotypical contrast with Tom the overbearing patriarch. Yet it works in this context — given Bertha’s non-violent philosophy that killing is unforgivable and Tom’s firsthand knowledge about the evils of war, it’s compelling to watch as these two influences inform Desmond’s brand of pacifism from two opposing ends of the spectrum. Throw in Desmond’s brother (Hal Doss, played by Nathaniel Buzolic), who enlists in the military out of a patriotic sense of duty, and we get to see in vivid detail how these competing family influences all dovetail into the course of action Desmond ultimately takes.

(Side note: Hal gets one scene to tell his family that he’s enlisted, and then he’s never seen or heard from again. Nice, huh?)

So Desmond enlists and he’s of course completely ostracized because of his refusal to engage in violence of any kind. What follows is a neat illustration of how pacifism is actually way harder than violence. To paraphrase Branch Rickey, it takes some serious guts not to fight back. Oh, and lest we forget, Desmond was raised by an alcoholic father — physical and emotional abuse are nothing new to him.

This is also where Gibson’s Christian bona fides serve him very well, as the characters engage in passionate and informed debates about whether killing in time of war is sinful to those of Christian faith and immoral in a more general sense. It’s a compelling examination of how religious dogma can be interpreted in any number of ways, and again, the film ultimately comes down on the more tolerant and peaceful side of the debate. Coming from Gibson — a man so famously recorded for saying hateful things about minorities — this comes as a very pleasant surprise and a positive sign that maybe he really has turned things around over the past few years.

Unfortunately, the plot kinda falls apart upon the realization that Desmond is trying to be a medic. There’s beating up a guy for being an alleged coward, and then there’s beating up the guy who could make all the difference about whether or not you come home alive. Even without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and knowing what’s going to happen, you’d think that anyone in the military with an ounce of sense would know better. What’s more, it never ever occurs to anyone that maybe a medic who isn’t weighed down by weapons or ammunition might have a marked advantage in speed and endurance, which would come in handy when a soldier lays wounded and every second counts.

Something else that’s incredibly stupid is the whole court-martial subplot in which Desmond could be made to spend the whole war in prison for disobeying orders. I get that this was meant to keep the tension rising, but it’s not like we didn’t have enough of that anyway. Moreover, it’s well-established even before that whole plotline starts that conscientious objectors are very much a thing. There’s a terminology for it, which implies a protocol and precedent for this. And even after Desmond is clearly given a formal “CO” designation right in front of us, everyone still has to go through all this “disobeying orders” bullshit. Oh, and did I mention that all of this wraps up before the halfway point, before we even get to the battle that the whole damn film is named after?

While the court-martial subplot may have raised quite a few interesting thematic points, it was entirely bereft of any tension. Useless.

Another huge, HUGE problem with the first half concerns the romance subplot. Teresa Palmer plays Dorothy Schutte, the nurse who would eventually become Desmond’s wife. Desmond himself is inexperienced with women, so I get that the romance between them is supposed to be awkward, but that doesn’t make their romance arc any less clumsily written or painful to sit through. What makes it worse is that Andrew Garfield completely fails to sell his chemistry with Palmer. Granted, Palmer is working twice as hard to make up for that, but she’s just not a good enough or seasoned enough actress to handle that kind of a burden.

Which brings me to the supporting cast. In case I hadn’t made it clear before, Hugo Weaving thoroughly owns this role. There are so many different shades to his portrayal of a loving father haunted and ruined by his own personal demons. Kudos are also due to Rachel Griffiths, who does so very much with so very little. And I really liked Luke Bracey, here playing the stereotypical bully who gradually becomes Desmond’s closest comrade in arms. Sure, it’s kind of a cliche, but he made it work beautifully.

But the rest of the cast… whoo boy.

To start with, we’re introduced to everyone else in Desmond’s company, and barely a one of them is worth a mention. Perhaps more importantly, Desmond is stuck at loggerheads with a no-nonsense captain and a tough-as-nails drill sergeant. The former is played by Sam Worthington, and I could’ve sworn we were done with that void of charisma. Yes, I know he did a fine job in Macbeth, but that was all the way back in 2006 and there’s been no sign of that much talent in the time since. And yes, I know he’s busy with those Avatar sequels, but let’s be honest — if he wasn’t in the franchise at all, would you even miss him?

Oh, and the actor playing the tough-as-nails drill sergeant? Vince Vaughn. As a drill sergeant. Vince goddamn Vaughn. How the almighty fuck am I supposed to take that seriously?

Last but not least is our lead actor. Yes, Andrew Garfield looked like the perfect choice on paper. A young man with unyielding integrity who looks like a weakling but proves himself capable of extraordinary feats? Of course you’re gonna go with Peter Parker, that’s a no-brainer. And yes, Garfield acquits himself superbly well in the second half, which is pretty much wall-to-wall action. When he’s running and sneaking around through enemy territory. Which means he doesn’t talk much.

Back in 2007 — about two or three years before Garfield made it big — he made a guest appearance on a now-infamous “Doctor Who” two-part story comprised of “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks”. His part was a Tennessee native named Frank. His southern accent was godawful, and time has not improved it one bit. He’s quite obviously no more a southern native than I am. So not only was casting him to play the accent a bad idea, but everyone behind the scenes — even Garfield himself! — should’ve known better.

On a final note, I suppose I should discuss the film’s treatment of the Japanese soldiers. It’s extremely difficult to deny that the opposing soldiers are little more than nameless, faceless monsters. Aside from a questionable portrayal of ritual suicide, there’s no attempt at portraying Japanese culture, explaining why they’re fighting, or really making any attempt at humanizing the enemy. I expect that this may be a problem for the more socially conscious among us.

On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that humanizing the enemy to such a definitive extent would be outside the scope of this film. Remember, this story isn’t really about the conflict of Americans versus Japanese — it’s about the much more personal conflict of how to maintain a pacifist stance in the face of so much pressure to fight back. Desmond argues that taking a taking a human life is such a destructive act of evil that simply picking up a weapon causes chronic harm to the soul. The counter-argument is that the enemy is such an overpowering force of evil that they’re not really human and therefore it wouldn’t count to kill them.

By portraying the Japanese as a swarm of anonymous drones, we’re made to see how dangerously easy it is to fall in line with that logic. Which in turn shows how hard it is to buck that line of thinking and see the enemy as fellow human beings. Thus Desmond’s brand of empathy is shown to be as noble as it is difficult, making him look like even more of a hero.

What it comes down to with Hacksaw Ridge is this: The film is at its best when it sticks to the “war is hell” theme. The discussion about PTSD and our treatment of retired veterans, the talk about whether there’s ever any kind of situation where killing is justified, and the gut-wrenching portrayal of an active war zone are all utterly marvelous. But everything else is regrettably melodramatic, overly simplistic, and void of any tension.

It’s a good movie about a wonderful story that needed to be told, but there’s definitely a sense that it was only a few miscast actors and maybe another script polish away from true greatness. I’d say this is at least good enough for a second-run viewing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it picked up a few Oscar nominations in the technical categories.

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