Wednesday, November 9, 2016

In Theaters: HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh, Nathaniel Buzolic, Matt Nable, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Ben Mingay, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Milo Gibson, Robert Morgan. (R, 139 mins)

Directing his first film since 2006's APOCALYPTO, Mel Gibson shapes this biographical account of WWII hero Desmond Doss (1919-2006) into an unflinching, graphically violent look at one man taking a personal stand amidst the horrors of war. Co-written by Robert Schenkkan, who scripted several episodes of the HBO mini-series THE PACIFIC, HACKSAW RIDGE is also filled with the kind of epic suffering endured by Gibson protagonists, whether it's BRAVEHEART's William Wallace or THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST's Jesus, right down to some crucifixion and baptismal imagery in the climax, almost depicted as a resurrection of sorts. The first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Desmond (Andrew Garfield) grew up in the hills of Lynchburg, VA, the son of drunken, bitter WWI vet Thomas (Hugo Weaving), who's still shell-shocked by his experiences and wracked with survivor's guilt after he was the only one of his friends to return home alive. A family of Seventh-Day Adventists, Thomas has instilled in Desmond and the rest of the family--wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and their other son Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic)--a deep belief in non-violence and the idea there is no circumstance in which even touching a gun is justified. Thomas is enraged when Hal enlists, and despite his protests, Desmond enlists as well, feeling a sense of duty but vowing to stick to his anti-gun beliefs by volunteering to be a medic ("Instead of taking lives, I'll be saving them," he tells his father). Promising to marry his nurse girlfriend Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) during his first furlough, Desmond joins the Army and all goes well until he refuses to handle a weapon.

Of course, he's immediately branded as a coward by everyone from bullying fellow recruit and all-around alpha-male Smitty (Luke Bracey) to drill sergeant Howell (a miscast Vince Vaughn), and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). It also doesn't help that his religion's Sabbath is on Saturday, a day in which Desmond refuses to train. Glover orders a psych evaluation for an easy Section 8 discharge, but when Desmond is deemed of sound mind, Howell is instructed to make his life hell. Desmond is routinely singled out for non-existent infractions, for which Howell punishes the entire group with 20-mile hikes and having their weekend passes revoked. Desmond is beaten by his fellow recruits and refuses to back down. He's eventually court-martialed, and it's decided--with some input from a high-ranking General who fought with Thomas--that Desmond can serve his country as a medic and do so without the protection of a weapon if he so desires. After marrying Dorothy, Desmond is shipped off with the others to Okinawa to take the Maeda Escarpment (recreated on location in Australia, where the entire film was shot), known as "Hacksaw Ridge." Many men are killed in seemingly endless battles with Japanese soldiers, and after Glover orders a retreat, Desmond remains atop Hacksaw Ridge, dragging surviving soldiers to the cliff and rappelling them down one by one. Working himself to the point of mental and physical exhaustion after seemingly answering a call from God, his hands raw and bleeding profusely from rope burns, Desmond single-handedly saved the lives of 75 men at Hacksaw Ridge.

It takes a little over an hour before the story gets to Hacksaw Ridge, and the carnage starts with an extremely effective jump scare more suited to horror movie. Dumping untold gallons of blood and hurling around more innards than an Italian cannibal movie, Gibson doesn't shy away from making combat look as raw and realistic as possible (naturally, some conservatively-used CGI splatter takes you out of the moment, but it's mostly practical effects). Bullets rip through flesh and skulls in ways that put this on par with the opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and the endless suffering of Jesus in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. While he'll always be a pariah to a certain degree, Gibson is clearly a complex and troubled man beset by frequently public demons. His efforts as a filmmaker have a shared vision, even his 1993 directing debut THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE, thus far Gibson's only directorial effort that didn't involve graphically gory feats of human endurance. Gibson's heroes are outsiders and rebels, either by choice or by fate. They are men who stick to their beliefs in the face of any and all adversity and are willing to endure whatever physical and psychological suffering to demonstrate that belief and prove their conviction. And when you see the frayed tensions in the Doss family and the things that led Desmond to take his stand, particularly in his relationship with his father, a man who loves his family but too often treats them horribly because he can't forgive himself for being the only one of his friends to come home from The Great War alive, one can't help but wonder how much of that applies to Desmond Doss and Mel Gibson. There's an argument that Gibson's complicated relationship with his own father, an on-the-record Holocaust denier who--and this is not to excuse Gibson's tabloid transgressions--undoubtedly planted the seeds for some of the beliefs that have led to so much turmoil in Gibson's life. On and off the battlefield--the graphic gore aside--it's easy to dismiss HACKSAW RIDGE as corny Americana and Garfield's performance as overly earnest. Of course, Desmond gets not one but two "I was wrong about you" mea culpas, one from Smitty and one from Glover, and Vaughn's Howell scaling the cliff and uttering "We're not in Kansas anymore" is a line that should've been axed at the first read-through.  But it was a simpler era and a time of different values and Desmond Doss, who died in 2006 and is shown in an interview snippet at the very end, was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. To that end, HACKSAW RIDGE is a powerful film that both honors Desmond Doss and functions as another intensely personal look into the abyss for Mel Gibson.

Cpl. Desmond Doss receiving his Medal of Honor
from President Harry Truman in 1945

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