In Hawksaw Ridge (2016), Andrew Garfield plays real life soldier Desmond Doss. Doss is an inherently compelling figure to make a movie about, seeing as how he both refused to carry a weapon into a war that he volunteered to participate in and managed to save over 70 lives while doing so. On paper, this seems like a project that is incredibly well suited to Mel Gibson’s particular directorial sensibilities. Doss’ pacifism is religiously motivated and the titular battle was incredibly violent. A film that is basically forced to have overt religious themes as well as plenty of blood and gore seems tailor made for Gibson and yet, he still manages to miss the mark somehow.
Hacksaw Ridge is, in part, a film about how terrible violence is. Furthermore, the film is critical of war as something that makes good men violent. We see this when Doss is wrestling with his brother. Doss’ mother comments that the boys are violent but nobody stops them from wrestling. Left unchecked, Doss strikes his brother in the head with a brick and nearly kills him. We also have the character of Tom Doss (Doss’ father, played by Hugo Weaving), who has become an abusive drunk due to his horrible experience in the war. In the words of Doss’ mother, the man is no longer Doss’ father. She says that Doss’ father died in the war. It is with a palpable conviction that the film denounces violence as it venerates its pacifist protagonist as a hero for abstaining from it.
All the stranger then that Hacksaw Ridge is also a film about the power and necessity of violence. We see this in the film’s final 20 minutes, when a company of military men lay waste to a faceless horde of Japanese soldiers (I would get into the dehumanizing portrayal of the Japanese in this film but that seems like a topic that demands a whole essay unto itself). Sam Worthington sternly orders his men to “go to work” before Gibson’s camera, with the slow motion glory of a Zack Snyder picture, venerates and indulges in what is essentially a massacre. The strange part, the military company in question was emboldened by Doss’ heroic saving of a number of wounded soldiers. Basically, Doss’ pacifism inspires his fellow soldiers to be more driven, efficient killers.
Gibson is, in my estimation, unable to reconcile the conflicting worldviews that he presents in his film. The film spends its first hour lecturing the audience about the merits of pacifism only to spend its second cooking up gory, elaborate scenes of lurid violence with glee. The narrative is one in which violence is celebrated and denounced, effective and yet rejected and most strangely, righteous and an object of abstinence. A film that should have articulated a particular stance on the role of violence in a Christian life instead utterly fails to do so and doesn’t seem to care.
The film does not just fail on a thematic level either. Andrew Garfield fails to convince the audience that his terrible performances in The Amazing Spider-Man films weren’t his fault. There are scenes in the film that gesture towards a more interesting Doss than Garfield provides us with. On the page, Desmond Doss is a violent man at heart. He is someone who reigns in his violence due to guilt and religious conviction. However, Garfield is clearly playing him as a straightforwardly altruistic saint for 90% of the film. As such, there is a dissonance whenever Doss’ internal violence ever bubbles up to the surface. I know Garfield was great in The Social Network but it might just be time for us to accept that he is sorely lacking in range.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Hugo Weaving is decent as Doss’ abusive, alcoholic father but he is the only member of the main cast to make an impression. One cannot help but feel painfully sorry for Teresa Palmer, who is barely even playing a character as Doss’ Girlfriend. Hacksaw Ridge is the kind of movie where every woman in the script exists solely in relation to and talks exclusively about the men in their lives. Palmer’s only job in the film is to be a tangible object for Doss to want to reunite with (thus upping the stakes of the film’s battle scenes) and express to everyone what a great guy he is whenever she is asked.
Unfortunately, Gibson also fails to deliver even one especially compelling battle scene throughout the tedious proceedings. He doesn’t fail for lack of trying (In fact, just the opposite). Gibson keeps shattering skulls, showing the audience maggot covered corpses and at one point even shows us a half corpse used as a shield in combat. However, these sequences are not particularly well edited and the supporting characters in them are so poorly fleshed out that it just becomes a cacophony of head shots, blood spurts and grime.
Overall, it is incredibly hard to recommend Hacksaw Ridge. It fails on both the visceral and thematic levels. The consistent engagement with the themes of violence and religion keep the film interesting until the end, when its failure to come together into a cohesive whole leaves the whole thing feeling like a simplistic disappointment.