Movie Review: ‘HACKSAW RIDGE’ – a violent and endearing comeback for Mel Gibson

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James Cole Clay// Film Critic

HACKSAW RIDGE | 131 min | R
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Sam Worthingtton and Rachel Griffiths

World War II, a time when men were men, women were women, God is good and Nazis were bad. There wasn’t much critical thought thrown into social discourse, or individuals and their religious rights. Basically, there was one way, and one way only, to live and that was the WASP way of life.

But that’s for another day. We’ve gathered here to talk about filmmaker Mel Gibson’s first film behind the camera in a decade, HACKSAW RIDGE. Never mind how his reputation has crafted what others think about him as a person, I’m separating the art from the artist.

HACKSAW RIDGE tells the remarkable story of United States Army corporal and combat medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor without ever firing— or really touching— a weapon. He’s chastised by his drunken father Tom (Hugo Weaving) for enlisting, after seeing the spoils of World War I. Yet a starry-eyed Desmond insists he’s doing the Lord’s work to save injured men on the front lines. Say what you will about his boy scout attitude, Doss is a person who sticks to his convictions. Honestly, the film’s ideas about faith come secondary to the war aspect in terms of execution.

Aside from employing every WWII trope in cinematic history – from the cornball romance Doss conjures up with nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) to a tough as nails drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) – Gibson’s story finds meaning other than faith based in Doss’ plight against violence. But Gibson has a vision for his film and helps craft good work from his actors– Vaughn being the real surprise, who has been nothing short of unmemorable for years, managing to dull out some laughs and real moments of character.

Director Mel Gibson (left) and star Andrew Garfield (right) on the set of HACKSAW RIDGE. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Director Mel Gibson (left) and star Andrew Garfield (right) on the set of HACKSAW RIDGE. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

The film’s fundamental power lies within the morality of a soldier who has every opportunity to kill the enemy, yet chooses to save even in the most hate-filled circumstances. And for all its faults, that message rings true without ever coming close to drowning under the weight of its ideology.

HACKSAW RIDGE will have a broad appeal to most audience goers, those who love a classic Hollywood romance and uniformed men will love the craftsmanship put into the period. And those looking for action will find breathtaking sequences of kinetic limbs being blown off.

Socially and politically speaking, it’s going to be difficult for HACKSAW RIDGE to garner awards attention due to Gibson getting in the way of his own career some years ago, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve recognition; namely, for Garfield and the brilliant sound design. (Note: make sure you see HACKSAW RIDGE with the best sound as humanly possible.)

While people have known Garfield for many years – notably in 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK – he’s got the reputation for being Spider-Man and nothing more than a serviceable actor. Yet, here he conveys an earnest look into Doss’ squeaky clean persona with an inspiring bravado. The performance isn’t on the same level of Daniel Day Lewis in LINCOLN, but Garfield is slowly showing that he never lost what made him so compelling six years ago.

Gibson made a film that comes from the heart. While you may not even agree with Doss’ anti-war approach to war, he’s a person of good character and portrays an innocence that has been lost in the 21st century. But it’s just such a damn shame that nurse Dorothy was stuck at home with nothing to do but miss her husband. Palmer (LIGHTS OUT) deserves better than this.

HACKSAW RIDGE opens nationwide Friday, November 4.

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