Dead bodies are the first thing you see in Hacksaw Ridge. Blood, gore, viscera, it’s all on full display. Later, there’s a shot when Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) donates blood, and for no reason other than to demonstrate violence, we see the needle press and pop into the skin. This should all come as no surprise to anyone versed in Mel Gibson’s directorial work—The Passion of the Christ, Braveheart, and Apocalypto were never meant for the soft of stomach. But what always justified the violence was the way it accented the themes; all that torture and bloodshed, Gibson argued, was as integral to the Christ’s sacrifice as his death on the cross. The same goes for Hacksaw Ridge, a movie that transcends the preciousness of the conscientious objector at its center. Gibson literally surrounds him with the violence he refuses to create.
Desmond is that conscientious objector, but that doesn’t mean he won’t serve his country. As World War II escalates, he voluntarily joins the army, upsetting both his nurse girlfriend, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), and his alcoholic father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), a rumpled veteran still haunted by his own time in the military. In basic training, Doss, a hopeful medic, refuses to even touch a rifle, openly citing his Seventh-Day Adventist faith while secretly nursing memories of familial abuse. This doesn’t make him any friends in the squad, nor does it please his superiors, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). A twist of fate saves him, however, and Desmond is soon tending to his comrades during the brutal and tumultuous Battle of Okinawa.
Once we get there, the relentless gunfire and stormy clouds of smoke make it hard to remember just how sweet and idyllic many of the film’s earliest moments are. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ wistful score gently underscores Desmond and Dorothy’s touching courtship, while Garfield’s performance is so earnest that he threatens to shatter into shards of sugar glass. Even basic training is laced with strains of levity: Desmond’s fellow soldiers are introduced in short order, distinguished by particular attitudes, accents, and, in one case, a love of being naked.
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Vaughn is especially wonderful, finding ample humor in his takedowns of the recruits without ever once resorting to the crass, motor-mouthed Vaughn of yore. But Garfield grows along with his character, eventually elevating him beyond the cherubic child of his early scenes. And not enough good things can be said about the film’s central ensemble of soldiers, most of whom are able to carve distinguished characters from their minimal screen time.
Throughout, Gibson’s tone is impressively balanced, even if he occasionally seems to be playing to the cheap seats. The cutesy humor and central romance can sometimes work to undercut the larger themes at play. Levity is good, but preciousness inevitably turns sour. Truly, it’s Gibson’s use of violence that serves as the best anchor for the material. I’m reminded of the needle prick we witness during an otherwise sweet scene; even during the film’s lighter moments, the director never shies from violence. It’s all around us, he argues, an everyday part of life. That allows Gibson to paint Desmond as both noble and naive, which results in a richer, more encompassing view of life during wartime. By focusing on Desmond, Gibson isn’t arguing for the idealization of conscientious objection so much as the power it can wield during warfare.
Hacksaw Ridge isn’t pro-war or anti-war, nor is there a clear-cut gun control narrative to paste on it. It’s a movie about bravery and the power of inspiration, be it divine or corporeal, in moments of hopelessness. Desmond’s faith is placed front and center, and the way it operates here celebrates not the object of that faith, but the power it has to motivate both Desmond and his squad. Gibson isn’t crediting God; he’s crediting the perseverance of the human spirit when all seems lost. This is as bipartisan a movie as you’re likely to find about this sort of material.
Death is inevitable. Pain, violence, and strife are all inevitable. It’s why the film opens as it does, and why it floods so many frames with rivers of red. So what does it mean to be nonviolent, during WWII or even now? What is possible? That’s what Hacksaw Ridge wants to know.