Mel Gibson is the wrong person to make a movie about a pacifist. The actor-turned-director of Braveheart, Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ, and now this biographical war-drama, Hacksaw Ridge, has too much bloodlust to properly recount the amazing true-life of Desmond Doss, America’s only conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. What interests Gibson about Doss is not his peaceful philosophy, but rather that his story offers another opportunity to craft a thinly-veiled Christ allegory oozing with viscera, another passion-play action-movie. Gibson has always used religion as an excuse for violence, though Hacksaw Ridge might be most egregious, because it fetishizes exactly what it purports to denounce.
The film is divided somewhat crudely into episodes. In the first, Doss (Andrew Garfield), a small-town southerner, grows up the religious son of an abusive veteran (Hugo Weaving). He learns to detest violence after inadvertently injuring his brother. After helping a hurt motorist, he stumbles into a hospital one day where he meets his sweetheart, a nurse named Dorothy (Theresa Palmer). In the second part, he enlists to fight in WWII, but refuses to handle a weapon in training, leading to retaliations from comrades as well as superiors (Sam Worthington) and finally to trial by court-martial. In the third and longest section, Doss’s unit assaults a heavily fortified vertical cliff-face on Okinawa, while he follows as an unarmed medic.
Once the bullets start flying, the first section’s mildly charming courtship scenes dissipate from our memories like the smoke from freshly fired cannons. Battle carnage being Gibson’s purview, the movie surprises us with pop-up corpses, zooms in on flayed skin and dismembered limbs, and shows human bodies popping from head-to-toe with gunshot holes. Men fall like bowling pins, though we never know them well enough to care. Plus, we’re too distracted by the grisly sights of intestines hanging from open abdomens and skeletons with maggot-filled eye-sockets. The tasteless grossness of it all suggests an unintentional parody of a war film directed by the Sam Raimi of Evil Dead.
Hacksaw Ridge calls to mind many superior films. Vince Vaughan, who nobody can take seriously anymore, shows up as a drill sergeant whose risible face-to-face hollering and name calling comes off as an amateurish attempt to replicate R. Lee Ermy’s legendary performance in Full Metal Jacket. Doss’s heroics in the field play like an extended reenactment of the search-and-rescue sequence in Forrest Gump. The movie borrows from bad movies, too. When Doss donates blood so he can flirt with Dorothy at work, I thought of the callow meet-cute in the opening scenes of Pearl Harbor.
That movie, however, at least had the decency to portray the Japanese as desperate, dignified people. Characters in Hacksaw Ridge liken them to devils and animals, and the filmmakers seem to agree. They’re portrayed in combat as cowardly sneaks who fake surrender so they can throw grenades. Between firefights, they stalk the field, ruthlessly slitting the throats of the wounded and dying. When Doss mercifully treats one grateful adversary, it’s somewhat redeeming; but for a film about a man so compassionate that he couldn’t bring himself to touch a rifle, you’d expect the filmmaker to demonstrate a smidgen more likeminded humanity. It was Jesus who said, “Love your enemies.” Mel Gibson hates his, with a passion.
The film’s own Biblical allusions are heavy-handed and belabored. At one point, Doss cleans blood from a soldier’s eyes. “I thought I was blind,” the soldier exclaims. Now he can see. Get it? The men carry the exhausted hero from the battlefield as if off the cross and lower him over a cliffside in a stretcher in a reverse Ascension. Though less ridiculous than Gibson crucifying himself on the rack in Braveheart, it’s no subtler. Garfield’s aw-shucks performance is kid stuff compared to his suffering as Father Rodrigues in Silence, a movie Scorsese suffered to make. Gibson only indulges himself. Sanctimonious and unpleasant, Hacksaw Ridge should be a sympathetic work, but instead it’s all about the director getting his bloody fix.