Monday, January 2, 2017

Review: "Hacksaw Ridge" is an Awe-Inspiring Look at Faith During War

Scene from Hacksaw Ridge
The events of Mel Gibson's aggressive personal life are likely well known by this point. It's full of a hostility that has kept him from being nearly as big of a star as he was even 15 years ago. Yet with his latest directorial film Hacksaw Ridge, he creates the perfect allegory for redemption. What's more impressive is that he does it without sacrificing the things that make his cinema singular (violence). Mixing war with faith, he explores how a man excised from his community based on his beliefs regains their trust through hard work. There's an earnestness here that is striking amid the graphic decapitations of the war scenes. This may be a story about having faith in time of crisis, but it's also a story about how Gibson regained our trust while producing his best film as a director. 

The story follows Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield): a Midwest American with a love for his country and his faith. Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, he enlists for the Army against the fear that he will be shot. Not because he is a coward, but because of his status as a "conscientious objector" who refuses to use weaponry in defense. It is difficult for everyone around him to understand this - even facing a potential court-martial - and by the time he gets deported to Okinawa to fight on the hellish battlefield known as Hacksaw Ridge, he has gone through his own crisis of faith. He asks himself how he could defend the men who try and assault him for refusing to so much as fire a round of ammunition. What Gibson does is answer that question with a bigger heart than he's ever shown as a director.

The film is essentially a throwback to how military movies used to be made, specifically in the time of which the real life Doss lived. These were films like Sergeant York who turned average soldiers into heroic icons whose own personal struggles made their participation in war far more fascinating. The film manages to balance this nostalgic lens with a modern sensibility that we've come to expect from Gibson. There's an overtly machismo atmosphere to the boot camp scenes, which includes Vince Vaughn doing a surprisingly effective introduction as the instructor in charge of throwing the new military class into the proper head space. Gibson gets away with making such a masculine film because war is a very aggressive subject. Yet he still manages to provide another element that made films like Sergeant York timeless: the personal conversations that occur in the peaceful hours between chaotic battle. Even knowing that Doss lives, the fear that his world can be altered at any moment is a nerve racking testament to Gibson's eye.

What makes the film excel as more than an exercise in excessive violence is that Gibson has made a film that earns these moments. While his other films feel less personal, there's a lot to take away from seeing the graphic nature that may scar some viewers. It plays like a horror show, not unlike Platoon, with Japanese soldiers rushing in to kill the heroes we've bonded with. Had it not been for historical context, this could be seen as racially problematic to a modern progressive audience. Even then, Gibson know hows to make war hell and he even knows how to make it get under your skin. While the first hour by comparison is peaceful build-up, the middle section is nothing but tear down of any lasting optimism that war is solely a patriotic thing. It takes a real aggressive (maybe even insane) person to survive the events.

While this film could get by on self-indulgent action that is some of the most electric shot in quite a few years, it is the final stretch that shows Gibson tying everything together. For stretches, it does feel like Doss is a secondary character to his own story. It may even bother audience members who have come to empathize with Doss' mission. Yet it is in the final stretch that Garfield's performance turns into awe-inspiring brilliance as the war turns into a prologue for his own mission. Now he has to navigate the fields against a known danger. The violence goes from feeling self-indulgent to intentional from a story standpoint. It adds tension and makes you nervous for Doss. This only works because the first hour builds him as a hero and the second shows what he's fighting for. 

Garfield is an actor who should be a bigger star than he is at this point. Following The Social Network, his career didn't really take off beyond good indies and the notorious The Amazing Spider-Man franchise. It is here that one could argue that he more than needs to finally break out and become one of those bigger actors. He manages to play a charming simpleton so well that his value in faith is something the audience never questions. Throughout the film that follows, he manages to explore his crisis of confidence in fascinating detail, even providing Gibson with one of his strongest protagonists. By the end, Garfield's Doss feels like a real man who has done incredible work. The film may occasional jolt between quality drama and excessive gore, but there's never doubt in Garfield's earnestness for the role. 

Meanwhile, this film also serves as a personal dissection of Gibson's recent demons. While he still may be a controversial figure, having a film that explores a struggle to be respected for your integrity must be something that feels true to his heart. It makes Hacksaw Ridge's story as his comeback all the more easy to buy into. Thankfully, he has managed to find a nice middle-ground between the thing that makes him off-putting (violence) and what makes this so surprisingly powerful (character). It may be tough to absolve him of his real life sins - which may have helped make certain unrelenting moments more effective - but he has proven that he is an artist who has evolved and has, since the time of Braveheart, learned to tell a story with real characters who matter. The film may not be perfect, but it is awe-inspiring in its ambitions and serves as an example of why war cinema used to be so popular. It's both personal and impersonal, putting everyone in a peril they should never hope to experience. Gibson captures that very well, and that cannot be taken away from him.

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