The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Review: Hacksaw Ridge (UK Cert 15)

After a decade since his last stint as director (for the bloody Mayan action-adventure Apocalypto), Mel Gibson makes a triumphant return to the Hollywood fold with Hacksaw Ridge, a mature and unflinching war drama which tells the extraordinary true story of Desmond T. Doss. Doss served as an Army Medic during the Second World War but, due to his religious beliefs (he was a staunch Seventh-Day Adventist), he never carried a rifle and never killed anyone. Instead, he saved over 75 wounded soldiers from Hacksaw Ridge (part of the Battle of Okinawa) and became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. 

I'll be honest with you. I didn't expect to like, enjoy and respect this film as much as I did. Whatever you may think of Mel Gibson's past indiscretions (for want of a better word), this is a remarkable film.

It's led from the front by a charismatic and powerful performance by Andrew Garfield as Doss. Garfield has the acting chops and personality to carry a film (see The Amazing Spider-Man films if you want proof of that) but here he's simply superb, embodying Doss' unwavering belief without it ever becoming polemical or one-note. Doss had a real struggle with the Army to be allowed to serve without carrying firearms, which the film shows, and you feel for him every step of the way. Garfield has real chemistry with Teresa Palmer (who plays Doss' girlfriend and later wife Dorothy) which adds an extra dimension to the character. Garfield has been winning award nominations left, right and centre and it's truly deserved. 

Hugo Weaving puts in a great supporting turn as Doss' war-scarred hard-drinking father Tom, who survived the First World War whilst his friends didn't, and returns to town with survivor's guilt and a burning dislike of the military. His disappointment when both sons enlist is palpable but he eventually supports Desmond's decision. Rachel Griffiths has less to do as Doss' mother Bertha but is instrumental in instilling faith into him and is more supportive of his decision. Palmer's performance as Dorothy is quite lovely too; she's not just there as window-dressing, she's a strong and independent woman and a character in her own right.

When Doss gets into the Army, a whole raft of new characters come in but it's to the film's credit that- even if some of them are only broadly sketched out- all the men in the platoon have discernible characters. Vince Vaughn is particularly good as platoon Sergeant Howell, and he gets some good laughs as well as some dramatic moments. Of the platoon men, it's Luke Bracey who gets the most character development as Smitty Ryker, who doesn't believe in Doss' outlook, calling him a coward, yet eventually respecting the man for it. 

Gibson's films have never shied away from showing harrowing and gory violence and Hacksaw Ridge is no different. Once the film shifts to the theatre of war, it's all out as bombs, bullets, blood and body parts start flying around. It never feels gratuitous, never feels exploitative but absolutely in keeping. War is hell and it would be a massive disservice not to show it as such. At times, it's not an easy watch but it's undeniably powerful.

At a running time of 2hrs 20m, it's a long film but the story justifies it. You need to see Doss' early life and his courtship with Dorothy and the travails he went through to be allowed to serve in the Army before seeing him in the hell on Earth that was Hacksaw Ridge. There doesn't feel a part that's indulgent or padding.

The film ends with archive footage of the real Doss, talking about his time in the war and his dedication to helping save lives rather than taking them is truly moving and inspirational. The man was a bona fide hero, even more so for never carrying a gun, and the film is a very fitting tribute to him.

Rating: 5 out of 5


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