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Movie review: Hero faces down horrors of war in Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

  • Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Lionsgate/TNS

  • A scene from the film “Hacksaw Ridge” Lionsgate Entertainment/TNS



Tribune News Service
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mel Gibson’s latest film, the harrowing World War II picture “Hacksaw Ridge,” opens with a short taste of the hellfire he rains in the second half of the film — so we know what we’re getting into. It’s a flash of fire and bodies and blood in the mud before Gibson whisks the audience to the bucolic Blue Ridge Mountains to meet our hero, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).

If there’s one thing that Gibson can stage and shoot on screen, it’s violence, battles and heroes who are steadfastly, stubbornly committed to what they believe in. He did it in “Braveheart,” and “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Hacksaw Ridge” is as effective and affecting as those films.

Based on the true story of Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, the material is a pitch right down the middle for Gibson. Doss is an individual of deeply-felt faith, an outcast who is so committed to his beliefs that he eventually inspires others to follow him.

The first half of the film explains Doss’ aversion to violence, guided by his Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs, and forged in the fire of abuse from his father (Hugo Weaving), a man wrecked by his own experiences in the Great War.

Even in this sweet-as-pie depiction of small town, Southern America, Gibson is focused on the small, everyday violences that happen to the human body, the blows and pricks and falls that are endured even in this nearly impossible vision of Rockwell Americana.

Doss enlists to become a medic overseas, driven to help save lives and serve his country. But his refusal to touch a rifle doesn’t endear him to his unit, or his commanders. The scenes of the soldiers joshing and taunting and teasing are straight out of a 1940s John Wayne war movie, with each member falling into their types. Vince Vaughn, as Sergeant Howell, electrifies the proceedings with his litany of creative insults, many of which fall on Doss.

He’s ridiculed, disciplined, beaten by his peers and court-martialed, but he refuses to back down, and in that strength of faith, and unwavering determination to help others and save lives, the men find that Doss is the one they’ll gladly follow into the nightmarish horrors of battle on Okinawa.

The second half of the film, largely taking place over the course of a few days, depicts the unrelenting hell of war, the gruesome and intimate hand-to-hand combat, the destruction of bodies, flesh and blood and rats and total annihilation of human life. It’s Doss’ respect for human life that drives him to stay on the ridge after the troops retreat, going back into the battlefield again and again for another wounded man, lowering him down on ropes, praying for the strength to save “just one more” — 75 times.

The violence is difficult to process, and as an argumentative tool, Gibson wields it like a sledgehammer. Before he lands in battle, Doss is asked time and time again if he’s “crazy,” hears voices, or if he’s of sound mind; that circumstances are different in times of war. But when we’re on the ground, the film flips that notion on its head. Is it crazy to save lives or to take them? In “Hacksaw Ridge,” it’s clearly war that’s craziest of all.

Rated R.