Friday, March 1, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Backing up to the 2016 slate of Best Pic nominees and one I never got around to seeing at the time, today's subject is Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn.  The film tells the kinda sorta true story of Desmond Doss, a World War II medic who earned a Medal of Honor for saving 75 of his fellow troops at the Battle of Okinawa.  A conscientious objector and Seventh-day Adventist Christian, Doss refused to carry a rifle and fought hard during training to be allowed to stay in the military as a pacifist medic, at one point facing a court martial for insubordination.

The film is split into two halves, the first covering Doss's troubled upbringing and first experiences with violence; his father was a World War I vet with PSTD and a violent alcoholic (played pretty superbly by Hugo Weaving).  We learn that as a child he nearly killed his brother while rough housing, and his regret stemming from that incident remained throughout his life.  A later confrontation with his father involving a gun left him with a severe aversion to firearms, hence his refusal to use one while in the military.  This half of the film uses a lot of familiar movie tropes - the awkward budding romance, the forceful drill instructor (Vaughn, whose status as a goofball comedian makes him less than intimidating here), the goofy misfit bullied by his unit.  None of this material is particularly profound, but Garfield's performance makes most of it work, at least on a Hollywood level.
The second half covers the Okinawa battle in grimy, gory detail, in much the same way Gibson's The Passion of the Christ spent A LOT of time on the violence against Jesus.  While that felt like gratuitous religious torture porn (albeit very well-executed from a technical and visual standpoint), at least the violence here sort of serves a purpose, and we spend time learning what this protagonist believes in first.  But it also seems to bely the greater point the film is trying to make, that this devout Christian was horrified and disgusted by violence and used his abilities strictly for the preservation of life.  It's the old conundrum: how does a filmmaker show and comment on explicit violence without celebrating or fetishizing it?  The film repeatedly raises the question "Is there a difference between murder and wartime killing?" to which its protagonist answers "no."  Yet it still wants to get away with showing extremely graphic wartime killing, which feels at best incongruous.  The battle scenes, like those in Saving Private Ryan, are very well done but also seem like Gibson is trying to one-up Spielberg, instead of coming up with a fresh way to depict them.  

Thematically the film is very much on-the-nose; Jesus was peaceful, loved everyone, and never compromised his beliefs, therefore Desmond does likewise.  Subtlety has never been Gibson's strong suit as a director, and he visually hammers home the Christ analogy in this film, with shots of Desmond being "baptized" under a cleansing flow of water after a battle, or being lowered on a stretcher as the sunlight glistens over his spent, wounded form.  Ok Mel, we get it.  I will say it's refreshing to see a devout Christian character who actually behaves the way *Christ* might have.

All in all, Hacksaw Ridge is a pretty well-made film by a visually gifted director, but one who seems both obsessed with his pious religious beliefs AND with depicting voyeuristic carnage that will rev up his audience.  I wonder if this film would've been as successful if the only battle footage shown involved Desmond saving lives.

I give Hacksaw Ridge *** out of ****.

Thanks for reading - subscribe to our mailing list, and follow us on Twitter, MeWe, Facebook and YouTube!

No comments:

Post a Comment