Opening this review softly would do the Hacksaw Ridge a grave injustice so I won’t do that. Mel Gibson, with this film, has fully refreshed our memory on how incredible a filmmaker he is behind the camera. It’s become a common theme for my reviews but if it holds true it must continue to be beaten into the head of those looking for quality viewing. Actors are essentially blank shells. There are some special ones that bring the performance no matter what, but on average, actors’ performances are bound to the mercy of the director. Have you ever seen a terrible movie but thought that one of the actors was at least good in it? That would be a special actor. There are other films that can distract you with action and pretty colors and sneak by as thoroughly entertaining. This is not that film. This brings the real and the raw along with the boom and the bang.
Gibson created a 2 hour piece of art, masterfully crafted into two equal parts. Hour 1 and Hour 2.
HOUR 1: Meet the Players
This is where we meet virtually the entire cast of characters. Gibson poured a vast amount of effort in to crafting the narrative for the audience that would play on the emotions. With a hard look at the fragility of the human body and mind, the stage is set from childhood to young man for Andrew Garfield’s character Desmond Doss. Layer by layer we see unveiled, the events that lead to his life choice of being a conscientious objector. A childhood trauma of nearly killing his brother, years of childhood trauma dealing with his alcoholic father (played by Hugo Weaving) followed by some other influences. Garfield is a renewed revelation with his performance. He’s been a serviceable actor before but Gibson certainly pulled out the best for Hacksaw Ridge. There’s almost no way to not root for this guy and his journey. From his falling in love, to the horrors of war, you’ll be waving pom poms for him, you’ll be scared with him, and you’ll swell with pride. The physical performance he gives is right up on par with his emotional and in many ways ties right in together. The act of saving 75 soldiers alone in a hostile war zone and lowering them down one by one a sheer cliff.
Garfield is definitely a huge consideration for Oscar season now, but he’s not the only one. Hugo Weaving, by now, is beyond icon status. The man is performance gold. He is without a doubt one of those special actors I eluded to earlier that will bring his A game no matter who is barking “CUT!!” This performance in his turn as Tom Doss, violent alcoholic war veteran. It would be shocking if he too wasn’t tapped in the supporting actor category. Weaving put forth a heartbreaking look at a broken man, soul ravaged from his own run with war and its atrocities. There is a scene that will completely obliterate you’re ability to know how you should be feeling in that moment. At the dinner table when Hal (Desmond’s brother) has enlisted and sits down with his service uniform on, Weaving takes that scene all the way to multiple awards. This is a scene i’m not sure if I can credit at all to Mel Gibson, i feel like a choice was made by Hugo Weaving and a smart director knows when to get out of the way of a special talent. If you’re like me, you’ll go from unsure giggle, to a burst of laughter and then plummet to heartbreak.
Playing opposite him as his wife, Rachel Griffiths serves as the glue holding it all together. Her role is small but vital to understanding the family dynamic. There is a key issue of domestic abuse dredged up with her character and it explores the strength in women that stand by their soldiers. This is of course taking place in a different time in history when walking out was virtually non existent. And Griffiths certainly walks the line as both helpless victim and strong family root in a way that gives her character a strength in weakness.
Talking about the actors can get tedious but films like this are so rare in their ability to make you forget that you know who is on screen simply because they are better than they have ever been. Prime examples of that are up and comer Teresa Palmer, who to date has really done nothing significant to standout, but in this film captures the heart with great romantic chemistry along side Garfield, some impressive timing and a playful yet elegant class brought to a character that plays a central motivation for the main character with only limited screen time to bring that across. Vince Vaughn is another. He’s had a glowing performance here and there but mostly he’s just quick quipping funny man that is always eating. He doesn’t take one bite of food in this film and he’s still absolutely hilarious but as a drill sergeant he is completely believable. There are also some more humanizing moments that allow him to shine as well; something not seen from him since another compelling film 9 years ago in his small but well performed role in Into The Wild (2007). Finally but most shocking turn of all, Sam Worthington. This man has been nothing short of a small miracle in Hacksaw Ridge. This is the same horrendous actor from both Titan films and got his big break in Avatar, which if looked back upon was only good because of its visual spectacle and underlying political and social messages. Somehow he just keeps getting roles and keeps being terrible until he is cast as Colonel Glover in Hacksaw Ridge. I wen through the entire film not even knowing it was him. My friend and colleague had to point it out when we were having our usual post viewing discussion. He is all the proof I will ever need to back up my constant point that great direction is needed to make Oscar caliber films.
HOUR 2: WAR
Right on the line of 60 minutes of character building, the next 60 minutes is pure carnage and courage. Hour 2 takes you from the tough time Doss is having in boot camp and dealing with a court marshal while also trying to marry his love, and drops you into the volatile war zone of Okinawa Japan. Though the scale (height) of the ridge itself is GREATLY exaggerated from reality, the brutality and bravery are not. This is where we will get technical. Award worthy performance from Garfield is greatly aided by the battlefield of Hacksaw Ridge, its own character in a way, the landscape provides a havoc filled backdrop for the audience to soak in while following what is an absolutely true recounting of events. The real Desmond Doss was indeed credited with the sole rescue of 75 American soldiers and the physical performance and technical coverage to depict this was a master blend of acting and engineering. I won’t go so far as to put the cinematography on the level of The Birth of a Nation, but it could still be a contender. Simon Duggan has a solid history of beautiful motion photography having crafted the look of Underworld: Evolution, and the Great Gatsby among others. He got to craft 2 worlds in one film, the sweet country and the blistering battlefield, two stark contrasts of style. The lighting was superb even though the camera motion was mostly by the book with some key exceptions in action sequences, those of which weren’t groundbreaking but were well captured and visually impressive.
The practical and special effects were incredible and paired with the sound crafting and score, brought the realities of that war zone as close to real as possible. Mel Gibson can never be accused of holding back. He gives everything to you raw and uncensored (a trait that also got him in trouble and blackballed for awhile in Hollywood) He’s a genius director that is in rare air as having NEVER directed a bad film. Controversial, yes, he has that in his style in spades, but never bad. The attention to detail both in performance and backdrop set him apart as a filmmaker. Behind the camera there aren’t many that are on his level. So far, I see his accomplishment here especially with the risky choices of pieces he used in key roles, he seemed almost to challenge not just the actors, not just himself but critics directly. This film screams almost more loudly to dare and find a flaw in some of the most mediocre or predictable actors you can name than it does to come see a great war film and a feel good story. He’s the front runner for Best Director in my eyes and there are some fantastic films with incredible direction this year to contend with, but so far none can touch what he accomplished. The only giant criticism to make is one that lends to all films based on a true story. That phrase is a disclaimer that tells you the is an exaggeration. There are some large details in the film that I won’t discuss here, because you can go research them yourself if you wish, that are vastly different from what actually happened. But the key things are not exaggerated. None of the battle heroics are exaggerations though some details are switched around a bit.
Bottom line, Mel Gibson pulls the performance of careers from most all of this cast, it is paced perfectly, the story flows with no hiccups, and even in the first hour of mostly no real action, this character driven war drama delivers all the way through with no spots to pick out and be bored. Watch this film immediately.