Friday, November 4, 2016


Movies are often driven by characters, and building characters is essential. Character building is not unlike making a house; there’s a foundation, walls, a roof, and maybe most important of all…what’s inside. Such is the approach of filmmaker Mel Gibson and the odd-yet-true story of HACKSAW RIDGE.

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who despite being a devout Christian and conscientious objector, joins the Army during WWII as a medic and refuses to lift, much less fire a weapon despite the orders from his Platoon Sergeant (Vince Vaughn), company commander (Sam Worthington), and the persecution by his own fellow soldiers and military justice.

On paper, the idea of a soldier going to war without as much as pea-shooter in his hand to defend himself seems ludicrous, and maybe even a little corny despite being based on a true story. Establishing the character is everything, and director Mel Gibson, showing the patience of a veteran filmmaker, is in no rush to make sure we know exactly who Desmond Doss is and how his refusal to fire a weapon is justified. Childhood incidents cement his reluctance to fight, while his WWI-veteran alcoholic father (brilliantly played by Hugo Weaving) adds to his sense of duty to his country. His wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), gives him something to come home to and adds plenty of heart to the story, and his experiences in boot camp where he is literally punished for his beliefs builds his walls even stronger.

HACKSAW RIDGE is ultimately a war picture, and once Doss does make it to the front lines as a medic, he gets his wish and gets to rush into the hellfires with nothing but air in his hands. And once those hellfires do start to burn, Gibson lets it all fly. Guns boom like thunder, flames fill the screen, bodies are blown to bits, and blood and guts spew everywhere. Rats and maggots eat away at the dead, and heads and limbs are mangled and crushed like going through a meatgrinder. War is hell, and Gibson never lets us forget it.

But in the middle of all that blood and fire is Doss, who runs from one mess to another dragging his fellow wounded soldiers to safety, and this is where the emotional power of the film kicks in. Soldiers who had ridiculed Doss earlier now defend him, and the shit that Doss has to go through, especially when he is left on his own after his Company retreats, is enough to make anyone cringe. War is brutal and powerful and out of it comes raw emotion, and Gibson delivers. Bring tissues.

The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is outstanding.

Andrew Garfield puts on a great physical and emotional performance. His southern accent pushes the good-ol-boy routine a little too much, but once he is asked to do the physical work all is forgiven. Garfield is asked to do a lot here and he is more than up to the challenge. Teresa Palmer is excellent, as is Sam Worthington, and in a rare dramatic role, Vince Vaughn.

HACKSAW RIDGE has a nostalgic feel to it, as it is filmed and acted in the 1950’s style of all-American boys and strong ideals. It sometimes feels dated, but it works…and sticking to ideals is what the film is all about. Gibson is telling a story not about war but about remaining steadfast to belief in the face of the worst hell imaginable, and it makes the relentless on-screen onslaught of booming bombs more than just noise. Gibson has crafted a very unique war picture with HACKSAW RIDGE, one with a different type of story with a different type of soldier; the type that we would want sitting next to us when things go wrong. And those are the best characters.


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