After 10 years away from the directing chair, the often talented but always controversial Mel Gibson has returned to create Hacksaw Ridge, a movie that claims at the very beginning that it’s not based on a true story, but is simply ‘a true story’. All 100% factual. Not Hollywoodised at all.
Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a biographical (completely 100% true) war drama written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, and directed by Mel Gibson. It stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a young man who enlists in the army as a conscientious objector due to his devout christian beliefs. Belittled by his superiors Sergent Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), he is shipped off to Hacksaw Ridge without a weapon and dedicates his life to getting the wounded off the battlefield.
As much as I make fun of the movie proudly labelling itself ‘a true story’, Hacksaw Ridge is still based on a true story, and a powerful story at that. Gibson may very much Hollywoodise Doss’s exploits with a bit too much of a dramatic sheen at times, but it never dilutes the raw bravery and inspirational aspects of Doss himself. And even if it is Hollywoodised, its hard not to say Gibson isn’t damn effective at presenting it. While the first act may lean a little too heavily on Doss’s romance with future wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), once it hits the army barracks the movie steadily builds to Hacksaw Ridge itself, which is a feat of visceral and violent film-making unto itself.
Gibson does not hold back on the gore – bullet wounds puncture helmets and hearts with explosive holes, mortar fire rips off limbs and bodies litter the mise-en-scene by the hundreds. If Braveheart isn’t evidence enough, Gibson can direct the hell out of action sequences, and Hacksaw Ridge clearly benefits from this skill. The camera skips around the battlefield with fervent intensity, but its always easy to follow the movements of the conflict and powerful beat after beat hits until it finally lets up and I can come up for air. Sure, a couple of moments stretch the boundaries of realism just a tad, but overall this is far more of an action movie than I expected and considering Gibson’s steady direction that is a pleasant surprise indeed.
At the centre of all this utter chaos is Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss himself. His second role this year playing a strong christian, the other being Silence, this one may be a lot flashier but no less powerful. He plays Doss with a dose of good-natured likeability and steadfast will, making his constant plea to ‘help me get one more’ feel less like a cheesy line and more like a battle cry to get behind. He’s also supported but a rather talented cast of big-name actors too. Hugo Weaving has a great turn as his abusive/supportive father Tom Doss, even if his southern accent fails at times, Teresa Palmer has little to do but does well with what she does do, and Sam Worthington is… perfectly tolerable as Captain Glover. The real surprise however is Vince Vaughn as Sergent Howell. I know, Vince Vaughn, comedic actor known for basically playing himself, is good at playing a dramatic version of someone else? Shocker. But kudos to him, he does a great job and was a solid reminder that there’s a talented actor hidden somewhere in that inescapable slacker persona.
A powerful lead performance, gripping action and solid supporting cast is enough to make Hacksaw Ridge a film worth Oscar consideration. While the first act may struggle and the tone delves a bit too deep into over-dramatisation rather than sticking to realism, its not often enough to detract from what was truly an effective and even captivating cinematic experience.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended
Winner of the 2016 Batsie award for Second Chance.