Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield with earnest sincerity and a ludicrous Southern accent, was the first conscientious objector—or “collaborator”, in his words—to win the Medal of Honor. He did so by saving dozens of lives at the Battle of Okinawa, despite carrying no weapons or even touching a gun. Hacksaw Ridge divides Doss’s life into two parts: Before and After. The “Before” is Doss’s childhood in rural Virginia, a Seven Day Adventist who takes “Thou shall not kill” very seriously. His father, a traumatized World War I veteran and violent alcoholic, beats Doss and his brother and mother, and Doss fears the same violence within himself. So he swears off guns and violence and clings tightly to his Bible.
If that sounds obvious to the point of childishness, it is. Hacksaw is directed by Mel Gibson, a filmmaker not known for his restraint or subtlety. He’s so invested in Doss as an ideal that he never bothers to establish Doss as a character, and as a result Garfield’s performance—which is solid barring that patently ridiculous accent—is reduced to one beatific note. Garfield must have been aware of this happening because he’s trying to make Doss into something resembling an actual person, but Gibson undercuts him at every turn, preferring to show Doss as a saint-like figure, indulging in Christ imagery so blatant and crass even Zack Snyder is going, “Dude, too much.”
But there is still a nobility to Doss’s choices and actions, a consistency of character and conviction of spirit that is admirable. After enlisting following Pearl Harbor, Doss is basically just tortured at boot camp, his squad spurred on by their drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn, obviously enjoying the role but miscast nonetheless—he is incapable of blending into a period environment). Doss’s fellow soldiers are laughable cartoons—the handsome guy is self-absorbed and called “Hollywood”, the Texan does rope tricks, and the New Yorker is Italian and loud—and they are, as represented by Gibson, too stupid and cruel to recognize the saint in their midst.
But Doss’s pacifist bravery only works because his fellow soldiers are brave in a different way. This is the central problem with Hacksaw—it presents Doss’s brand of courage as the only one worth honoring. Following a court martial Doss is allowed to go into battle without carrying a weapon, but that’s only made possible because he’ll be covered by a platoon of soldiers who are carrying weapons. What Doss did is tremendous, but there must be a way to honor it without diminishing his fellow soldiers.
The “After” of Hacksaw is the actual battle, which is the bloodiest and most graphic World War II depiction yet—yes, even more than Saving Private Ryan. Gibson is unquestionably talented and he’s very good at filming large scale action, but he revels in the gore and viscera in a way that is borderline pornographic, and totally at odds with the pacifist message embodied by Doss. Images of astounding brutality—limbs flung from torsos like sticks from a branch, heads removed by shrapnel, and thousands of gallons of blood spraying in artful slow-mo—are so lusciously lit and beautifully composed it’s impossible to know if the point is to horrify or to arouse. (The eternal tension of all Mel Gibson movies: Is torture and violence a horror to be endured or foreplay?)
At the heart of Hacksaw Ridge lies a knot of conflicting ideas and emotions. It’s a movie about a pacifist in wartime that wants to celebrate the subject’s moral code while also reveling in the blood and guts of battle. It’s a story of faith and humanity told by a man with, let’s call them extremely suspect views. It’s a technically marvelous film with some surpassingly dumb moments. It’s a movie that seeks to honor an honorable man, but does so at the expense of other honorable men. Hacksaw Ridgeis a flawed film from a deeply flawed filmmaker. And it’s really, really graphic.
Attached - Andrew Garfield with Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson at the Hollywood Film Awards on Sunday.