‘Hacksaw Ridge’ a compelling war story from Mel Gibson
In case you forgot, Mel Gibson is a darn good director.
He reminds you of that fact throughout “Hacksaw Ridge,” a largely excellent, well-constructed and -executed war drama based on the compelling true story of an Army soldier who served in World War II but who refused to even touch a rifle, let alone fire one at another person.
Gibson has his personal baggage, to say the least. However, the director of films including 1995’s “Braveheart” — an Oscar winner — “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) and “Apocalypto” (2006) — knows what he’s doing behind the camera.
In his first film as a director in a decade, Gibson occasionally teeters on pushing “Hacksaw Ridge” too far into nostalgia and hokeyness, but he avoids those potential landmines even while crafting a film that explores — and celebrates — Christian values.
Andrew Garfield (“The Amazing Spider-Man” movies) stars as Desmond Doss, who, while serving in Okinawa, saved many lives during the war’s bloodiest battle, on Hacksaw Ridge.
The story begins, however, 16 years earlier, when a young Desmond (Darcy Bryce) nearly kills his brother, Harold (Roman Guerriero), during one of their many otherwise innocent scrapes. This incident — as well as the fact their alcoholic father, who has mental scars from serving in the Great War, beats on the boys and their God-abiding mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) — cements Desmond on his non-violent Christian path.
Years later, after Harold (now played by Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Garfield’s Desmond follows suit. This decision is not backed by his father, nor by the girl of his dreams, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). (A good chunk of the first part of “Hacksaw Ridge” is dedicated to Desmond’s courtship of Dorothy, and it’s entirely charming. Expect to fall in love with their love.)
Their fears for Desmond seem well-founded when, during basic training, he draws the ire of his drill sergeant, Howell (Vince Vaughn), and the unit’s commander, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). Desmond’s refusal to take part in rifle training — he intends to serve in battle as a medic and was told when he enlisted he would not be required to use a firearm — enrages them and causes them to pit the other trainees against him.
It shouldn’t be giving away too much to say the determined Desmond is tested greatly and fights to win most, if not all of them, over by the time the unit is sent to the front lines in Japan. It is there
Desmond’s true test awaits.
When the unit goes off the war, Gibson appropriately and skillfully turns up the film’s intensity. It’s hard to say definitively where “Hacksaw Ridge” ranks with the most graphic war films, but it’s probably in the discussion. The battle scenes in which the American troops fight the Japanese are the kind that reminds those who have never seen combat that they are fortunate. Yet despite the violence and myriad gruesome sights — and again to Gibson’s credit — these scenes never quite feel gratuitous.
Garfield, despite using a heavy Virginia accent that takes a little getting used to, helps anchor the movie with a fine performance. Sure, Desmond is an easy person to root for, but Garfield does nothing to mess with that.
While perhaps out of his comfort zone a bit, Vaughn (“Wedding Crashers,” “Delivery Man”) also turns in a nice effort. You wouldn’t think the largely comedic actor be the first call of a casting director looking to fill the role of a drill sergeant, but Vaughn pulls off Howell’s balance of being tough early on and then increasingly protective of the young men under him.
Likewise, Worthington (“Avatar”) makes the most of limited screen time.
It’s Palmer (“Lights Out”), though, who really impresses. She’s just perfect as what, admittedly, is an idealized version of a 1940s nurse who catches the eye of a future soldier and then give him all the love and support she can.
(By the way, one of Palmer’s costar in last year’s “Point Break” remake, Luke Bracey, is solid as a member of the unit who gives Doss a hard time initially but comes to bond with him.)
Lastly, “Hacksaw Ridge” is as strong as it is largely thanks to the screenplay by Andrew Knight (“The Water Diviner”) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Quiet American”).
With their writing, the performances and Gibson’s deft touch, “Hacksaw Ridge” runs nearly 140 minutes but never has to beg for your attention. And it saves its best for last, showing Doss’ insanely heroic efforts, for which he earned a Medal of Honor — the first conscientious objector to do so.
His is a great story, and “Hacksaw Ridge” is a film that deserves to be seen by the masses. Hopefully, Gibson’s past won’t keep them away.
MARK ROGERS/SUMMIT VIA AP This image released by Summit shows Andrew Garfield, left, and Teresa Palmer in a scene from “Hacksaw Ridge.”
MARK ROGERS FOR LIONSGATE Andrew Garfield, right, shares a scene with Luke Bracey in “Hacksaw Ridge.”