So here it is. Mad Mel Gibson’s latest offering has come to wash away all of the director’s former sins and let him reclaim his throne in Hollywood. It’s the true story of Second World War hero and conscientious objector Desmond Doss. So is it any good?
Hacksaw Ridge is a WWII extravaganza and when it plays to its strengths, the movie sings. It’s a diamond in the rough from one of our time’s most unlikely auteurs. It’s also the work of a Hollywood director who finds himself in the unusual position of being unshackled from the studio system for better and for worse.
Gibson is a formidable action director. His vision of Okinawa is so tactile you can practically smell it. Rotting corpses and rats, roving Japanese death squads ready to butcher any poor son of a bitch unlucky enough to have fallen in no man’s land and fresh-faced youth cut to ribbons by machine gun fire. Hell, the film even opens with a bible verse and slow motion flamethrowers ejaculating fire all over Japanese soldiers. Ultraviolence and religion. Classic Gibson.
It’s in battle that the film finds its groove which is why it’s a pity that after the opening scene we’re dragged away from the Mordor of Okinawa to the Hobbiton of Blue Ridge Mountains. We zig 16 years back in time and we then zag 15 years the other way so that we can spend the best part of an hour fleshing out Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and his beliefs.
Doss is a soldier of god and will not kill under any circumstances (he’s even a vegetarian) or work on a Saturday (he’s also a Seventh Day Adventist). Here’s the hook though, he wants to join the Army as a medic. Add to this a romantic subplot that culminates in a big spinning kiss at the top of a mountain with the beautiful Teresa Palmer, a boot camp sequence lifted from Full Metal Jacket and a bumbling, drawn out courtroom case about the ten commandments, and you start to get a sense of Gibson’s overambitious vision.
In trying to cram so much into the film, we’re left with an amazing and largely Australian cast that is never really given the time to shine. The young, up and coming actors in Doss’ unit are reduced to corpse-to-be status and Rachel Griffiths feels like little more than a set piece as Desmond’s mother. The actors who do get screen time, though, chew up the scenery. Hugo Weaving puts in a great turn playing Desmond Doss’ scowling, drunk, shell-shocked father Tom Doss and Vince Vaughn wears his new tough guy persona much more comfortably after the mess that was True Detective Season 2.
There’s a lot to like about this film and by all accounts, people like it a lot. All we can hope is that Mel has atoned to Hollywood, because what prevents this film from greatness is the guiding hand of a producer to pair back some of the slack in this sprawling epic.
HACKSAW RIDGE is released in Australian cinemas on November 3