Sunday, July 16, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

Directed by Mel Gibson.
2016. Rated R, 139 minutes.
Andrew Garfield
Teresa Palmer
Hugo Weaving
Vince Vaughn
Sam Worthington
Rachel Griffiths
Luke Bracey
Ryan Corr
Nathaniel Buzolic
Richard Roxburgh

After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. Many of its young men happily volunteered to serve their country. Desmond Doss (Garfield) is one such young man. Strangely, he is also a conscientious objector who refuses to take a human life. He plans on being a field medic so that he will instead be saving lives. He has also vowed to never touch a gun. So resolute is he that he won't even pick one up to complete the requirements of training. Once he and his higher ups clear that little obstacle, it's off to Okinawa he goes where the army is trying desperately to overtake the Japanese on a stretch of elevated land known as Hacksaw Ridge. True story based heroics ensue.

Visually, this film is a stunner with some of the most brutal war scenes this side of Saving Private Ryan. Once we get to the front lines, we are quite literally dropped into the middle of the action. Bullets are flying all around us and doing some major damage to our heroes. I can't count how many times I cringed, jumped, or was awed by what I was seeing on the screen. The spectacular visuals aid in the pacing of the film. The first hour goes by at a pretty good clip, but the last hour and change zips by as its essentially one long battle scene that somehow manages to keep from becoming tedious.

Story wise, Hacksaw Ridge is beyond hokey. It pushes the idea of its protagonist as a Christ-like figure in a manner more heavy-handed than any movie since Man of Steel. After a misstep as a child, our Doss is utterly perfect. While saving lives he quotes scriptures, gives sight to the blind (quite literally), and at one point, seems to be ascending into Heaven. I'm also pretty sure sure I saw him dodge a bullet, too. And I'm not even joking. Early on, he's ridiculed by non-believers and, more or less, crucified. Making Doss a sanctified being doesn't stop there, either. The metaphor is pushed further because the film takes the term "faceless enemy" to a whole new level. The Japanese soldiers Doss's unit is fighting mostly fires at them from off-screen. When they are shown, they are shrouded by thick smoke so that they are just shadowy apparitions only capable of bringing death and destruction. For almost the entire film, we literally can't see their faces. When we can, they're in full war-mode, unleashing primal screams, or they're already dead. They are hardly human at all. To seal the deal, they are even referred to as "Satan, himself." If they are a monolithic Satan, it only makes sense that our hero is the 1940s equivalent of Jesus. It's all a little too much.

The relentless devotion of the screenplay to exalt Doss is to the detriment of every other person in the movie. Every step of the way, we're told how different Doss is from the rest of us, another Christ-like quality. It effectively separates him from the very people he wants to save. What happens is that we never get to know anyone else well enough to care. Other soldiers are introduced, given a nickname, and a quirky quality that goes wholly unexplored. We're supposed to use that to bond with them so when bad things happen to them on the battlefield we're left distraught. It doesn't quite work that way. The two characters who do get lots of talking time, Sgt. Howell (Vaughn) and Cpt. Glover (Worthington), are merely present to be naysayers until Doss proves his worth to them. Then they have to gush over how brave he is.

The people Doss interacts with away from the war only fare slightly better. Doss's dad, Tom (Weaving), a World War I vet, is a PTSD suffering alcoholic, and an abusive husband and father. Unfortunately, these things are mentioned, but never addressed. It's a little odd considering he and his wife stayed together, at least through the events of this film. His real role is to provide Doss the inspiration to stick to his non-violent ways. As a reward, he gets a moment that supposed to serve as his redemption, but feels insufficient given his marriage-long behavior. It's a waste of a fantastic performance by Hugo Weaving as the material just isn't strong enough to match his portrayal which begs for deeper examination of the man he's playing.

Doss's eventual wife Dorothy (Palmer) is little more than a pretty face. She gets swept off her feet, because he's so different of course. Later, she is merely just waiting for her man to return. It's almost as if she's a damsel in distress, but without ever facing any physical threat. The mental anguish a woman in her position must have been dealing with is non-existent. She is just another believer that we never really get to know. His mother Bertha (Griffiths) is merely there to look pained. Though she is a battered wife, her problems are framed entirely by how they affect Doss. We don't care about her as much as we care that what's happened to her bothers him. Finally, his brother Hal suffers a similar fate. Whatever happens to him is only as important as its impact on Desmond. Hal is older and enlists first, then disappears from the film.

The film strives to be an inspirational, feel-good type of story. For plenty of people, it will be just that. I chalk it up to the same reason the dreadful American Sniper is so beloved by plenty Americans. It's an apparently true story that shows us as heroes in the fight against evil and reinforces the notion that we are operating under divine providence. This is unsurprising given that Mel Gibson directs, but the whole thing still left me rolling my eyes a bit and wondering about the movie's accuracy. Even if the events depicted are one hundred percent truthful, however, it still comes off as too much. You would not be far off if you referred to Doss, the way he's portrayed here, as "Our Lord and Savior." To put it another way, if someone were sitting in front of you, verbally telling you this story precisely the way it's told here, you'd probably say "Gitdafuqouttahere."

Possible 2016 Dellies Considerations: Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Overall Technical Achievement


  1. The Christ imagery is pretty heavy here, which is hardly surprising with a film coming from Mel Gibson.

    What I object to more and more with Gibson's films is how he depicts the bad guys. For Gibson, anyone working against his hero in any way is subhuman. The Japanese in this film are depicted as violent, kill-crazed animals. It's exactly how he portrayed the Romans and Jews in The Passion of the Christ, exactly as he portrayed the "other" tribe in Apocalypto, and exactly as he portrayed the English in Braveheart.

    The man has no sense of nuance, which certainly fits in with how heavy-handed he is with Doss here.

    1. Correct, nuance is definitely not one of Gibson's strong suits. Thanks for reminding me how his filmography is pretty consistent in that manner.

  2. The whole jesus imagery was pretty heavy handed in what was a technically impressive film (they were indeed the best war scenes since Saving Private Ryan). The depiction of the Japanese was 1940s standard.

    1. It was very impressive from a technical standpoint. The other aspects were deeply disappointing to me.

  3. It's coming on HBO in a month or 2 as I might see it though I'm wary of the whole Christ-like thing as I'm not fond of anything religious used in film as it's often heavy-handed and preachy.

    1. I find it very heavy handed, but I still say see it. I might be wrong as everyone else seems to love it. It even earned a BP nom. Besides that the visuals are awesome.

  4. Gotta disagree with you here dude: Weaving delivers a career highlight performance, and about the only significant creative liberties the film takes is contracting the time Doss spends up on the ridge. I think the official story has him up on the ridge for about two or three days lowering people, not the several hours the film appears to depict (unless I missed something critical).

    Maybe people are just too cynical to accept a premise and outcome like this?

    1. Weaving is fantastic. No argument there. As for the timeline, the movie contracts it to a couple days while it actually took a couple weeks.

      I fully accept what happened. My issue is the perfection with which Doss is presented. Save for the whole brick incident, which quickly washes away, he is shown as a faultless messiah whose only suffering is due to the sins of those around him.