Mel Gibson has had a rough decade. Arrested in 2006 for driving under the influence and blacklisted from Hollywood for aggressively anti-Semitic remarks, the actor and director known for sweeping epics like Braveheart and Apocalypto effectively disappeared from the public’s conscious for close to 10 years.
Now, in 2016, he has re-emerged behind the camera with Hacksaw Ridge, a faith-based war film that seeks to reaffirm his status as one of Hollywood’s premiere directors. But while Gibson has taken great care in crafting his comeback, the result is far from impressive.
Based on the true story of Army medic Desmond Doss (played with earnest sincerity by Andrew Garfield), who famously refused to carry a weapon onto the battlefield in World War II’s Pacific campaign, the film is at least well-meaning in its adherence to Hollywood war film tradition.
Doss, who single-handedly saved 75 men during the battle of Hacksaw Ridge on the island of Okinawa, fights through a number of personal and legal battles to be able to serve as a “conscientious objector,” including physical intimidation from his commanding officers (Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn). Meanwhile, Doss must contend with his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of the First World War who still wrestles with his own demons.
Hacksaw Ridge’s portrait of Doss’ life before the war (which makes up the opening half of its running time) signals the first signs of trouble. In the hands of the right director, even hamfisted dialogue (of which this film includes a great deal) can carry powerful dramatic weight. Gibson chooses instead to heighten the melodrama, punctuating each moment with overwrought musical themes and holding every dramatic beat in extreme closeup. This film demands to be felt in every emotional fiber of the audience, but its self-seriousness is practically smothering.
Its themes are also crippled by a lack of symbolic moderation. Doss’s adherence to his faith-based principles in the face of war is admirable, but Gibson seems to demand more than our earthly respect. Several scenes frame Doss as a symbol of sainthood, with heavenly sunlight pouring down from the sky as he floats through the bloodied battlefield in slow motion. In one sequence, Doss bathes and washes away blood from his body in a groan-inducing symbolic baptism.
There is simply no attempt at nuance.
The battle sequences are at least a sight to behold once the film’s narrative reaches Okinawa. The violence onscreen is at once surreal and brutally realistic, capturing the absolute hell of battle. In these sequences, Gibson shines as a director, operating the rapid-fire pace of war while deftly juggling the personalities within Doss’s company. The sound design is equally impressive, accentuating the blasts of artillery shells and machine guns to great effect.
But Hacksaw Ridge struggles to reconcile its violence with Doss’s actions, especially during the film’s final minutes. When Doss and his fellow soldiers successfully take the titular ridge, Gibson captures the moment of the Japanese defeat in slow-motion shots of slaughter and suicide. To display the sacrifices of soldiers on both sides is one thing. To revel in the savage deaths of Japanese soldiers as a triumphant victory, complete with sweeping fanfare, is morally reprehensible and betrays the very nature of the film’s hero. It is quite simply one of the most misguided and offensive endings to a film in recent memory.
The true shame in all of this is Gibson’s failure to do Desmond Doss’ remarkable story any justice. Though made with impressive technical skill, Hacksaw Ridge does little to change Gibson’s persona thanks to its simplistic drama and mishandled thematic morality. So much for a comeback.
Watch the trailer for Hacksaw Ridge below: