With Hacksaw Ridge the the cinemagoing public finally get to see the return of one of Hollywood’s most famous couples: Mel Gibson and his Catholicism! They are returning to the screen for the first time since 2004’s The Passion of the Christ. Despite their long absence as a couple from the public eye, and the controversy surrounding their relationship for over a decade now, here they are on screen. This reviewer is happy to say that it appears none of their unique chemistry has been lost over their time spent in exile and, indeed, they do appear to be closer than ever.
To be serious though, Hacksaw Ridge is pretty darn good, and given the (justifiably) shitty rep Christian film has been getting recently (because it’s all ham-fisted garbage) it’s good to see what the subject looks like in competent hands. Not that we’re getting an enlightened critical exploration of these themes in this joint. Gibson goes all out to stage a full on passion play on the Okinawa battlefield, no expense is spared in the depiction of an innocent man suffering for the sake of the sinners that surround him.
It’s a little odd really because it really tries to have its characters make the opposite point. Private Doss, the combat medic who refuses to harm, let alone hold a weapon, is just this regular guy. So we are told time and again, and we just like, ‘Nah, really tho?’ because he is made exceptional. His faith makes him more. It’s flash and impressive but its faith is still its soul. Down to the viewer really if they find that alienating, easy to ignore under the sounds of the explosions.
Cos this a WWII Pacific Theatre movie. It commits to that. Traditional structure reigns here, the plot methodically pacing its way through home through training to the battlefield. From comedic to horror, the sweetheart back home, gruff commanders, hard won camaraderie. All the elements are present and correct and are walked through by accomplished actors who are familiar enough with this stuff to hit their material out of the park. Gonna single out Vince Vaughn as someone who surprised me, not because he was super great but because he worked will in his role as the team Sargent. Good call from casting director Nikki Barrett there, although I do believe Vaughn has been seeking out these more serious roles recently.
This gives us plenty of opportunity then to heap praise on those who so rarely receive it, those working on the technical side of the film. Simon Duggan’s stark and smoky cinematography. John Gilbert’s aggressive and impactful editing. Barry Robison’s production design, its stark contrast between home and the war. The costumers and make up artists whose work serves to ground these characters into their world. All the special effects workers (practical and digital) and stunt performers who conjure the physical horrors of warfare. And the sound mixers whose work is, like, out of this world here.
That’s when the film works, at its most hardscrabble. When it is playing on all the most basic atavistic parts of the film-goers psyche. That’s why I suppose it is important that this is a Mel Gibson joint, because he is one of those very visual filmmakers who is able to do so much with the image to halt you in your tracks. Tellingly the best parts of the film are those with the least dialogue, not because it’s bad but because then it gives the screen a chance to speak. And it speaks loud and with purpose.