A blood-soaked, bone-crunching hymn to religious devotion and faith, “Hacksaw Ridge” doesn’t hum Mel Gibson’s favorite themes; it shouts them. Coming 10 long and eventful years since his last directorial effort, Gibson returns with a film that is on the surface about a real-life World War II hero – Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor – but is really about all the denigrated true believers who held their head high through the carnage and chaos and came out the other side a hero – be they named Wallace, or Jesus, or Mel.
As he’s proven with “Apocalypto” and “Braveheart,” Gibson has an incisive eye for action, knowing what to block, where to shoot, and when to get out of the way. He puts those skills to full use in the outrageous war scenes that make up the second half of “Hacksaw Ridge.” But you’ve got to get through a whole lot of blunt set-up first, revealing that Gibson’s decade-long absence turned a lot of storytelling muscle into flab.
The film’s first hour isn’t so much bad as bland. Working from a screenplay by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, Gibson introduces Desmond (Andrew Garfield) as a big-hearted country boy with a deep devotion to his faith — specifically Seventh-Day-Adventist, which prohibits violence. Which is no problem for Des; after nearly killing his brother in a childhood tussle and growing up under a drunken and abusive father, he takes to pacifism like a fish to water. But then the war breaks out and he enlists, and you don’t get far in basic training if you won’t pick up a gun.
The film suffers from broad strokes. Desmond’s father (Hugo Weaving) isn’t just a shell-shocked veteran of the first Great War – he’s The Most Shell-Shocked Veteran. He says as much twice over, but if the message wasn’t clear, Desmond’s mother (Rachel Griffiths) gets to say it again. The boot camp sequences follow a similarly well-worn path, introducing Vince Vaughn as the same drill sergeant you’ve seen in every film from “Full Metal Jacket” on down.
Vaughn and fellow officer played Sam Worthington are initially mystified by pacifist’s refusal to bear arms, and try to drum him out of the army. So, like father like son, Desmond gets about four different instances to explain that faith prohibits him from fighting, but patriotism compels him to serve (a “conscientious co-operator”), before the issue is resolved where all speeches are made in American cinema – in a courtroom scene.
“Hacksaw Ridge” cycles through these beats as the same old stations in a war-film passion play, but it roars to screaming life once the action moves to the battle of Okinawa and the fighting can begin in earnest. Strange choices from the first part, like cinematographer Simon Duggan’s decision to overlight most shots, make perfect sense on the battlefield, intensifying the carnage by making it so visually inescapable. Gibson and crew haven’t unlocked some new visual approach to depict combat – it’s still a lot firing and running and shit blowing up – but they reproduce the chaos of battle with a fantastic level of control.
The nearly 30-minute battle — a frontal assault on a hilltop bunker held by Japanese – is like a mini seminar on the director himself, a reminder of his great strengths and enduring obsessions. Gibson’s great at turning action into plot (“Apocalypto,” remember, is one long chase). His choice to follow Desmond, who navigates the warzone as a field medic, stopping to help and cauterize wounds and dispense morphine while the chaos reigns, pays off with dividends by structuring and offering a narrative through-line to this otherwise wanton frenzy. He’s also great with space, and makes sure you know exactly where each character is at any given moment, even though everyone’s always on the move.
He’s also kind of sadistic. He makes sure you know every different way a bullet, bomb or grenade can mangle a body. I mean, there are gruesome war scenes, and then there are gruesome war scenes from the director of “The Passion of the Christ.” Though he doesn’t want the audience out cheering all these guys being slaughtered, the director takes clear joy choreographing some pretty outlandish savagery, which we’re suppose to consume as entertainment. Which is fine – it’s really well done! But it also directly contradicts the film’s message. There comes a point towards the end – say, around the time a soldier uses the top half of a body as human shield, then charges, machine gun blaring at the enemy – where you realize you’re watching the most paradoxical of features: a movie venerating pacifism, made by man pathologically beguiled by violence.