After scandals and controversy led to his very public downward spiral and subsequent exile from Hollywood a decade ago, Mel Gibson has kept a pretty low profile. The Oscar-winning actor and director of Braveheart and one-time evangelical darling (for directing the blockbuster Passion of the Christ) has been gradually redeeming himself of late, beginning with an acclaimed starring turn in Blood Father this summer.
Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson’s first directorial outing since 2006’s Apocalypto, should expedite his return to respectability. The World War II epic, which received a 10-minute standing ovation when it premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, is artistically masterful and thematically timely. It is sweeping and surprising cinema of the sort that feels more and more rare in Hollywood’s current funk of recycled franchise junk.
A title with the word “hacksaw” in it is perhaps appropriate for a film that is jarringly two-halved, in many senses. The first is literal: The film is structured in two parts. The first half is set in rural America, in homes and army bases and courtrooms; relative civilization. The second is set on Okinawa in World War II, far from civilization and love and peace; relative chaos. When the shift happens from the first to the second half it is bloody and bracing.
Depicting the pivotal battle of Hacksaw Ridge in April–May 1945, the film’s brutal second half contains some of the most visceral and well-choreographed cinematic battle scenes since the bar-raising opening of Saving Private Ryan. Between the in-your-face violence and a structure that draws attention to itself, Hacksaw Ridge reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino film, particularly (in a weird way) the decidedly two-halved Death Proof. Though Hacksaw’s first half has a pastoral, almost Capra-esque tone, vibrant and sunny and green, the second half is sharp-edged and industrial, muddy and hellish and gray.
Some may observe a dissonance in this, a film about pacifism that ends up being as bloody a war epic as any in recent memory. Is Gibson glorifying violence here even as he tells the story of a nonviolent hero? It’s a similar question some levelled at Gibson’s Passion, which juxtaposes images of flesh-ripping bloodletting with Christ (Jim Caviezel) uttering lines like “love your enemies” and “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”
Can a film’s point about non-violence, sacrifice, and love be made effectively by confronting the audience so bluntly and unapologetically with the gory horror of violence? This is a question that informs Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and now Hacksaw Ridge, and it’s another aspect of the film’s two-halved nature: its thematic duality.
The true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, Hacksaw Ridge is about conflicts of many kinds: duty to God versus duty to country, individual freedom versus communal responsibility, healing versus killing, love versus hate, and so on. The film is also about an internal war, of course, as Doss (brilliantly played by Andrew Garfield) wrestles with maintaining his faith convictions amidst extraordinary pressures to compromise.
A devout Seventh-day Adventist, Doss joins the army during World War II in spite of his pacifist convictions and refusal to bear arms. He volunteers to be a medic, where he aspires to save lives rather than take them. His convictions make him unpopular in his unit. Fellow soldiers taunt him, beat him, and pressure him to quit, yet Doss is determined to serve his country as a medic, thrust into bloody battles without a weapon to defend himself.