This review began its life very differently, as a reflection on gun violence and a pulse-check of the conscious of a country. Yet so much has happened in the last week, with an historic US election that has divided a world and given us all pause for thought. HACKSAW RIDGE explores the notion of personal conviction, and how the strength of an individual’s will can influence the collective unit. Tied up with director Mel Gibson‘s intense Christianity, it is hard not to see the darker side of the neo-conservative moment running through this film as well, one where violence and a idealistic view of America’s past is wrapped up in a complicated bundle.
The heroism of the real-world Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss (portrayed here by Andrew Garfield) is unquestionable and well documented, so it’s somewhat ironic that the strongest elements of the film are the pre-war development of Doss’ credo. A childhood fight with his brother reinforces his view that “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Yet a chance encounter not only leads him to the love of his life, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), but a determination to serve his country as a healer. He enlists in the US Army, and despite the tough-as-nails drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and bullying colleagues, he holds true to his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs in not carrying a weapon. This part of the film is a straight biopic, and one that is told with equal amounts of sweetness, sincerity and grim determination.
When the film shifts gears into the wartime scenes, the transition is both jarring and shockingly violent. This is clearly intentional to showcase the consequences of war, but the hyper-reality of Gibson’s trademark bloodiness borders on its glorification. Nevertheless, Gibson wields it with scalpel-like precision, even if it is one of the blunter tools on his belt. Limbs go flying, the splattered remains of humans cover the fields next to the titular ridge, and rats gnaw their way through the remains of the fallen. Which is why it is difficult to view HACKSAW RIDGE as “anti” anything: not guns, not violence, nor even war.
Rather, the film is “pro” the sorts of things that one would typically associate with Gibson’s body of work: overt Christianity, and an unwavering adherence to personal doctrine. These are overwhelmingly positive attributes to the film, and as we watch Doss carry scores of soldiers to relative safety, only the most cynical of viewers could possibly view this as anything less than inspirational. Potentially complicating things is the depiction of the Japanese as faceless and demonic, set up as the ruthless antithesis of all that is good about Doss. Which is where the uglier side of film’s message could lead us, to a situation where these same heroic achievements are necessarily accompanied by a fear of the ‘other’ that runs deeper than wartime enemies. This naturally leads us to ponder the parallels with our contemporary mixed messages about patriotism and border protection.
Garfield gives one of his most compelling performances in years, overcoming the infamy of his Spider-Man portrayal to give us a down-to-Earth Doss. He might be a big cornball, but he is also impossibly likable as well. The most interesting relationship in the film is the one he has with his veteran father (Hugo Weaving), another broken source of violence in Desmond’s life, and an additional catalyst for the younger Doss’ non-violent stand. Simon Duggan’s photography is the other star of the film, making sense of the chaos in the same way that Janusz Kamiński did with Saving Private Ryan. Gibson’s film is, at the very least, a technical triumph of sound, vision and fury, enveloping the viewer in the gore of war.
At the time of writing it is Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day in the US), a recognition of the lives lost in the First World War, another event that looms large in HACKSAW RIDGE. It is absolutely essential that we continue to mark those who sacrificed their lives in service of their country, but also just as important to not let a misremembrance of things past guide our current decisions. In this darkening hour, Gibson’s missive is unapologetic in its optimism, and as we watch the powerful coda featuring interview footage with the actual Doss and his contemporaries, lest we forget the price of liberty.