You will not see a more visceral film than Hacksaw Ridge in the next year. Mel Gibson’s depiction of the Pacific War is so harrowing for such a long time that it saps every ounce of energy you have and makes you empathise for heroes of war in a way little seen since Saving Private Ryan.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the (true) story of Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who volunteered to go to war, but who refused to carry a weapon. After being inspired by nurses and doctors in his Virginian home town, Doss committed himself to being a medic, despite having little education, and to be the person saving lives in the war rather than taking them.
In cinematic terms this is a genius viewpoint to watch a war through, as we feel the terror of the guns, the bullets, the explosions and the flames through a lens of having nothing to defend ourselves with. Doss, without a gun, runs fearlessly into the heat of battle again and again. And even when all the ‘real’ soldiers have retreated to relative safety, Doss stays the course to keep saving lives anyone else would long since have left for dead.
Mel Gibson has been in the public eye for all the wrong reasons over the past decade, but it’s a treat to have him back behind the camera, and one thing that must be said of him is that he can shoot the shit out of an action scene. The battles in Hacksaw Ridge (and there are plenty) are messy and soaked in an unflinching amount of blood, chaos and pain. Gibson forces us to keep watching and does not let up. Just like war itself the horror is enduring and the camera takes us unbearably close. The Christian imagery that peppers the film will irk some viewers, but given Doss’s religious leanings it is fairly apt (if a little on-the-nose).
Andrew Garfield plays Doss with a kind of Golden Age cinema authenticity and an enormous sincere grin that puts him somewhere between Jimmy Stewart and Robin Williams, and in doing so makes him wholly endearing. The other stand out is Vince Vaughan, here playing his own version of Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. His comedy chops make the gags stick but he also brings a stern conviction to elevate the role.
When the credits began rolling I had a tear soaked face and a breathlessness that made me feel dizzy. I had been shaken to the core and put through the wringer, and I knew that Hacksaw Ridge had achieved that something extra which makes a film more than a film. It will stay with me a long time. And I recommend it as essential viewing.