Mel Gibson’s HACKSAW RIDGE begins with a quiet shot looking down (from heaven?) on corpses. They are horrific, with bits missing and gore everywhere. It’s a moment that will quickly give way to the battle of Okinawa that made them. Bodies ripped by bullets falling to the ground, others engulfed in flames running in panic. It is war in all its brutality, pulled back only slightly so as not to completely alienate the audience. It’s an unexpected restraint from the man who gave us torture porn in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and unsettling images of human sacrifice and insect healing in APOCALYPTO. It’s also a brilliant piece of filmmaking: passionate, visually engrossing, and emotionally satisfying. In it, Gibson walks a precise, yet difficult, line between acknowledging the heroism of the combatants and glorifying war as an institution. Indeed, the tragedy of lives cut short has never been displayed with such ferocity. And so it is fitting that the real-life hero of this film is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who believed in the rightness of World War II, and enlisted in the Army to fight World War II in his own way, which was to never touch a gun.
As is the way with films like these, the scenes of carnage give way to a flashback of when Desmond was just the wild kid of an angry alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) and a pious good-hearted woman (Rachel Griffiths) back in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. His first brush with real violence comes when he hits his brother with a brick during a brotherly tussle, leaving the brother unconscious, and Desmond so grief-stricken that even his father can’t see the wisdom of punishing him with yet another beating. Years later, he interrupts mending a stained-glass window at his church to save the life of someone crushed by a car by the correct use of a tourniquet. Upon delivering the patient to the hospital, he discovers his true calling as medic, and his true love, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). She becomes the girl whose photo and bible inspire him through the rigors of basic training, where he is assailed from all sides for his adamantly non-gun stance, and in battle, when his convictions are tested in life-and-death situations.
Yet these moments never feel like check marks in an episodic recounting of how Desmond found himself on Hacksaw Ridge without a weapon. There is a beauty in their very simplicity, from the outward turning self-loathing of his father, who has never recovered from what he saw in World War I, to the sweet innocence with which Desmond pursues the only girl he will ever date, much less love, that charms her out of her bemusement at this gangly boy with a crooked smile and guileless heart.
It all hinges all Garfield, of course. Though he is most ably supported by Palmer’s winsomeness, Weaving’s conflicted, unpredictable venom, and Vince Vaughn as Desmond’s ironic drill sergeant whose abundant humanity is channeled into tearing down his recruits in order to remold them into soldiers who can survive what is to come. Garfield’s languid drawl and lack of ego are deceptive for those who choose to write Desmond off as a rube. Desmond lacks schooling, but in Garfield’s performance, he is a man who is a deep thinker, who has looked into the abyss and come back changed, but not scarred. Chastened, but not bitter. It makes his reason for marching into battle without a weapon in order to save lives, when it is revealed as more than his Seventh-Day Adventist faith, a mark of courage beyond the strength of most.
When we return to that battle on Hacksaw Ridge, we have been prepared as well as we can be, like the reinforcements watching their predecessors return in the back of trucks, the dead mangled, the living with a thousand-mile stare that presages a lifetime of nightmares. For all the chaos, the narrative of what is happens there and why, the objectives and the setbacks are crystal clear as once again bullets tear through flesh and fire engulfs men who don’t die quickly enough. Again, Garfield is pitch perfect. Scared but focused as he gently tends to the wounded with an intense determination that refuses to let even one man slip away.
HACKSAW RIDGE succumbs to quasi-religious imagery from time to time. A shower that washes away blood evokes a baptism in the blood of Christ, a stretcher undergoes an apotheosis, but in the context of the story, and of Desmond’s deeply held, deliberately non proselytizing brand of religion that shows instead of preaches, such moments are apt metaphors barely verging on the heavy-handed. On the whole, this film is a harrowing experience, but also one that is jubilantly uplifting in its celebration of quiet courage and the strength of personal belief.