Friday, 18 November 2016

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)


A war epic based on a true story, Hacksaw Ridge is the stunning story of a conscientious objector who stuck to his principles and found his purpose on a tortuous field of battle.

With World War Two rumbling to a start, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) from rural Virginia enlists in the Army. Desmond grew up to despise violence, having been raised in a strictly religious family dominated by his father Tom (Hugo Weaving), a drunk, abusive and emotionally damaged World War One veteran. Desmond refuses to carry a weapon, and wants to serve his country as a medic. His anti-violence stance as a conscientious objector who nevertheless volunteered confounds the army. His unit Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) tries to drum him out, while his squad mates, including Glover (Sam Worthington) and Riker (Luke Bracey) turn against him and label him a coward.

With help from an unlikely intervention by his father, Doss eventually gets his way, stays with the army, graduates as a medic, and marries his sweetheart, the nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). His squad is dispatched to join the Battle of Okinawa, and quickly thrown into a meat grinder of a fight to dislodge the Japanese army from well-entrenched positions on top of a steep embankment labelled Hacksaw Ridge. With grim determination on both sides resulting in mass casualties on a brutal battlefield, the weaponless Doss will find his true calling.

Mel Gibson returns to the director's chair for the first time since 2006, and delivers a raw human story soaked in the blood and gore of battle. Hacksaw Ridge is an unflinching look at true heroism, and Gibson finds in Desmond Doss an assuming oddball, a deeply religious pacifist looking for his calling in the heat of battle. Doss won the Medal of Honor, and Hacksaw Ridge is a deeply satisfying salute to selfless courage.

The film is divided into three parts, with some flashbacks in the later scenes to fill in the gaps. The first third is an elegantly delivered coming of age love story, Desmond's background and formative years presented under the blazing sun of farm-bred innocence and the dark clouds of a damaged father figure. Key incidents from Doss's early life are efficiently presented, as he grows into a teenager willing to stand up to Tom, protective of his mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), and dogged in his pursuit of the ethereal Dorothy.

The middle of the film is a search for self: Doss knows he wants to be in the army, is insistent that he wants to go war without a weapon, and is stubborn about both points to the point of taking on an incredulous army establishment. Slowly he garners a grudging respect among the fellow trainees who don't understand him, but even the grunts and sergeants begin to admire something intangible in the gangly kid with a goofy attitude but a core of steel.

The foundations solidly laid, Gibson moves confidently into the final act, shifting gears and creating nothing less than hell on earth. Taking the opening 27 minutes of Saving Private Ryan as just a starting point in the realistic representation of battle, Hacksaw Ridge goes beyond what is easily imaginable, presenting a harrowing close-up vision of war and its destructive impact on bodies and souls.

The Battle of Okinawa is recognized as one of the bloodiest of the entire conflict, with estimates of up to 130,000 soldiers killed, and is cited as one of the core reasons the decision was made to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Gibson does not flinch from what this level of human carnage means: in a series of battles at close quarters, men are torn to pieces, guts are spilled, partial torsos are used as bullet shields, and rats feast on human remains. Death rains in from all directions, and Gibson leaves no doubt what the field of combat can do to a man who survives the horror. Suddenly both Tom's descent into an alcohol-fuelled depression and Desmond's anti-war stance make perfect sense.

The camerawork in the combat zones is superb. Gibson along with cinematographer Simon Duggan and editor John Gilbert keep the images rational, the cameras fluid, up close but only slightly jerky. The images of brutality, death, and heroism never compete with stunt directing and micro editing.

Andrew Garfield is serviceable and stays loyal to Desmond's admittedly dopey persona. Vince Vaughn finally demonstrates some acting chops outside of lame comedies, and enjoys a tremendous entry scene, Sergeant Howell invading the barracks of the new army recruits and exposing them to his brand of discipline and humiliation. Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey are the most prominent of the many fellow soldiers who endure the war with Desmond and witness or benefit from his exceptional audacity.

Hacksaw Ridge is an instant classic war film, a story of true love, religious conviction, dedicated service and remarkable bravery set amidst the worst form of perdition.






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