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Hacksaw Ridge Movie Review

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Hacksaw Ridge (2016) movie poster Hacksaw Ridge

Theatrical Release: November 4, 2016 / Running Time: 138 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Mel Gibson / Writers: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight

Cast: Andrew Garfield (Desmond Doss), Sam Worthington (Captain Glover), Luke Bracey (Smitty Ryker), Teresa Palmer (Dorothy Schutte), Hugo Weaving (Tom Doss), Rachel Griffiths (Bertha Doss), Vince Vaughn (Sgt. Howell), Matt Nable (Lt. Colonel Cooney), Nathaniel Buzolic (Harold "Hal" Doss), Richard Roxburgh (Colonel Stelzer), Ryan Corr (Lieutenant Manville), Milo Gibson (Lucky Ford), Goran Kleut ("Ghoul"), Firass Dirani (Vito Rinnelli), Luke Pegler (Hollywood Zane), Ben Mingay (Grease Nolan), James Mackay (Prosecutor), Darcy Bryce (Young Desmond Doss), Roman Guerriero (Young "Hal" Doss)

 

Reprehensible private comments made public turned Mel Gibson into a Hollywood outcast, but they can't make us forget the filmmaking gifts he displayed on The Man Without a Face, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. Ten years after his last time at the helm (2006's Apocalypto) and half a dozen failed attempts to revive his acting career later,
Gibson returns to directing in grand fashion on Hacksaw Ridge, a World War II drama telling the little-known true story of Desmond Doss, an Army medic who refused to bear arms as a conscientious objector.

Glimpses of Desmond's childhood establish him as one of two fight-prone brothers whose father (Hugo Weaving) is an alcoholic World War I veteran. A near-lethal incident in which Desmond struck his brother in the face with a brick drives the boy away from violence. As a young man, Desmond (Andrew Garfield henceforth) is a good boy, who helps out his family's church and saves a stranger's life with a quick-thinking, improvised tourniquet.

The latter incident introduces Des to Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a pretty nurse he charms. Before long, he's asked Dorothy to marry him before he enlists in the Army. With romance mostly out of the way, we move to the main event: Desmond's experiences in the Army. In basic training, he is taunted by officers and peers alike for his unprecedented position not to touch a weapon. The officers (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) try to get him dismissed with a psychological evaluation and court martial. The peers leave him bruised and bloodied in a display of threatened solidarity.

"Hacksaw Ridge" stars Andrew Garfield as an Army medic Desmond Doss, who became the first decorated conscientious objector.

But when the time comes, Des is there with his fellow troops in Japan, prepared to do what he can in the Battle of Okinawa. There, the Allied soldiers face great resistance as they try to ascend Hacksaw Ridge, a mountain fortified by heavily armed and well-defended Japanese soldiers. Can Desmond stay alive and somehow prove heroic without lifting a rifle? Would anyone be making a movie about him seventy years later if he couldn't?

Knowing Gibson, you expect Hacksaw Ridge to be a graphic and violent experience. An opening scene and the hard R rating suggest it will be. So, it's surprising to then get close to an hour of what feels like the romantic portions of Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. Hacksaw is somewhat sweet and plenty corny in these parts. But you always know they are just the appetizer to a main course in which torsos will be shredded, limbs will go flying, and brain fragments will splatter. Gibson does not shy from the brutality of WWII, which for a long time was glamorized by the movies and understandably so. But nearly twenty years have passed since Saving Private Ryan and by now, most of us are familiar with the hellishness and savagery experienced by what Tom Brokaw deemed The Greatest Generation.

While Hacksaw Ridge can't surprise us in this way, it can still stir and unsettle us and it does. But it distinguishes itself from other war movies by focusing not on an ensemble of fictional composites, but on one unusual and largely unsung hero. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who requests Saturdays off in observation of his sabbath, clings to his faith just as he clings to the pocket-sized Bible that Dorothy gives him with a photo of her inside. And while most Hollywood movies that bring faith into the mix keep things PG-rated and amateurish, Gibson knows how to incorporate belief into cinema that is simultaneously polished, gritty, mainstream, and artistic.

Before shipping off, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) falls for nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) in scenes reminiscent of the non-action parts of "Pearl Harbor."

Garfield's appealing lead performance, as well as his lead turn in Martin Scorsese's promising-on-paper Silence, makes a strong case for him having a productive career long beyond his short stint as Spider-Man.
Vaughn and Worthington are also good in their roles and both could use the boost that a respectable credit could give them. Palmer, who has long dabbled in semi-prominent genre fare (from Warm Bodies to summer sleeper Lights Out), is fine in the one female role of note.

Can Hacksaw Ridge give Gibson the industry-wide redemption that has eluded him for the past ten years? It's tough to say. Apocalypto, released at the height of his initial drunken arrest controversy, managed to gross over $50 million domestic and $120 M worldwide and that was a violent Mayan language action epic. This film would seem to be more accessible and relatable, but it also is distributed by Lionsgate, a studio largely unversed in prestige fare. The early November release date suggests that Hacksaw wants to wear that label, but I would be surprised if it becomes a major player in the awards season even if both critics and moviegoers are onboard (two big ifs).

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Reviewed November 4, 2016.



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