Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge"


A cross accompanies the title of Hacksaw Ridge, both on its poster and on screen, signaling fair warning: This is not a subtle film, nor is its director, Mel Gibson, interested at all in leaving its symbolism open for interpretation.  Hacksaw Ridge seems appropriately named, offering all the gentleness of having your legs cut off with one.

For that matter, the image of men with dangling sinew and tendons where their legs once were is an one Gibson returns to over and over in the movie.  So is a majestic reverence and awe with which his fellow soldiers gaze, in the end, upon Pvt. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).   But it's not the reverence that pervades Hacksaw Ridge, it's the violence, and it's easy to mistake much of the brutal, cruel, torturous imagery in Hacksaw Ridge for Gibson's earlier film, The Passion of the Christ, which does not at all seem unintended.

Hacksaw Ridge is as much a story of the resolution of faith through violent torture as Passion was, and if Doss is not represented here as the son of God, he is not terribly far off.  He is mocked and ridiculed by all because of his fervent religious beliefs until finally, through agonizing tribulations that no human being could possibly suffer, he is redeemed in the eyes of those who doubted him.

Did I mention this is not a subtle film?

The big question is whether Hacksaw Ridge is a good film, a film worthy of seeing, and in the end it's hard to give it anything but a strongly qualified recommendation; though it has a meaningful, even stirring, message and a compelling story, it is not a movie that most people would be able to sit through without flinching -- and Gibson, as he did with the blood-soaked Passion and Apocalypto seems to think that the best way to depict violence is to show every stomach-churning moment of it.

But to what end?  Hacksaw Ridge is not just a difficult film, it surpasses being a harrowing experience; in the end it is merely exhausting, a grueling and often laborious mixture of heartfelt story and near-pornographic violence.  Gibson revels in the visceral experience of bringing his audience to its knees, which would serve him well as a director of thrillers or horror films but does not mesh with what he must believe is an unassailable right to express himself as he sees fit.

He has that right, and it is a right worth defending, but it does not serve the film well.  Nor is Hacksaw Ridge entirely convincing in everything that comes before its hourlong descent into unrelenting violence.  Garfield plays a Virginia simpleton whose upbringing cannot be described without resorting to the use of the word "hillbilly."  He's a thickly accented local yokel who enlists in the Army despite his deep, heartfelt adherence to the strictures of the Seventh Day Adventists.  He interprets the Sixth Commandment not just as a prohibition against killing a human being but against even touching a weapon.  (Or, at least, that's the official version; the film itself gets a little confused when it shows, in flashback, the one time Doss fired a gun -- his belief seems to be more a personal guideline than a religious one.)

But before he goes, he needs to marry the local beauty (Teresa Palmer), who pledges to stand by her man, no matter what.  And he needs to defy his hard-nosed father (Hugo Weaving) before being carted off to training camp where his barracks are filled with the kinds of characters that used to be referred to as "straight from Central Casting."  There's the muscle-head, the bully, the goon, the Italian, the All-American boy ... and the tough-as-nails sergeant (Vince Vaughn) who insists his men call him "Sarge" and who has it out for Doss.

The lengths to which Doss goes to uphold his faith are impressive, and are the most interesting and rewarding sections of Hacksaw Ridge, and when it gets to the titular cliffside in Japan, the movie takes on a palpable tension.  The first moments of the battle are suitably nightmarish and intense.

After that, the movie doesn't know when to stop.  It keeps pummeling us over the head with insane levels of violence that certainly demonstrate the horrors of war -- but why?  This isn't an anti-war film, nor is it a story that focuses much on religious faith outside of a brief (and compelling) court-martial hearing.

The main action is about how Doss, through what appears to be pure luck and good fortune, survives the largely lethal battle for control of the summit, then stays behind to rescue wounded men.  What he does is incredible, but the thematic question of whether it was motivated -- maybe even, if the movie were braver, aided -- by religious faith is never really addressed.  Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan are more intent on the machinations of the fighting and on getting as gory as possible.

Amid all of it, the lanky, awkward, boyish Garfield finds and holds onto a strong character, even when the motivation is lost.  All of the cast is uniformly excellent, with the soldiers managing to differentiate themselves just enough.  Even more effective is a post-action coda with the real people who inspired the characters; their few moments on camera provide the most human element to the film.

All the while, Gibson seems never to have met a CGI effect he didn't want to try.  He's like a sadistic, violence-loving, blood-and-guts version of George Lucas or Peter Jackson. Warfare aside, the film's over-reliance on digital effects can be overwhelming.

While there's a lot to admire in Hacksaw Ridge, there's even more to turn away from.  War is hell.  We know that.  Movies about it don't need to be hellish or quite this stressful.

Viewed on DVD -- Feb. 28, 2017

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