Desmond Doss, the true-life hero of Mel Gibson’s new film Hacksaw Ridge, has a few things in common with the director’s other favorite protagonists. He’s stoic to a fault, a Seventh-day Adventist who’s eager to volunteer for World War II but refuses to carry a weapon, infuriating his commanders. He’s a man of deep faith, a combat medic who won the Medal of Honor because of his daring rescue of 75 comrades while under fire at the Battle of Okinawa. He’s someone who suffered through unspeakable horror—exactly the kind of nightmare Gibson takes strange relish in depicting—and managed to survive.
Hacksaw Ridge, like most of Gibson’s other films, is a fairly simplistic work. But it’s undeniably effective, a movie about the power of religious conviction that batters viewers with depictions of horrific violence and chaos. Like the lead characters of The Passion of the Christ or Braveheart, Doss represents Gibson’s admiration for rigidity and sheer force of will. But unlike Gibson’s previous true-story protagonists, Doss’s life has a happier ending, lending an extra note of triumph for Gibson to use as a cudgel. It’s hard not to feel euphoric when Hacksaw Ridge is over—but that’s more because the brutality has finally come to an end, and less because it’s offered any great insight.
Before the movie gets to the climactic events at Okinawa, though, it spends 75 hokey minutes with Doss growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia. As played by Andrew Garfield, Doss is an appealing protagonist—he’s a kindly, soft-spoken beanpole who tends to his family’s ranch and tries to keep his haunted father (Hugo Weaving), himself a veteran of World War I, from raging at his deeply religious mother (Rachel Griffiths). Doss falls for a local nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and is eventually motivated to enlist in the U.S. Army, despite his father’s deep trauma and his mother’s pacifist objections.
Doss is a fascinating bundle of contradictions, and Garfield captures this by projecting an almost alien (or perhaps divine) quality in Doss’s baleful smiles. Here is a conscientious objector who nonetheless believed World War II was a just battle against evil, a man who refused to commit violence but wanted to aid those called on by their country to do so. It’s the perfect project for Gibson, a director who invests his heroes (William Wallace, Jesus Christ, and Apocalypto’s Mayan warrior Jaguar Paw) with one-dimensional goodness that endures even as they are besieged on all sides by intense (and very cinematic) cruelty.
First, Doss suffers through basic training, bullied by his company (who view him as a coward for not picking up a rifle) and his commanding officers (who see him as an insubordinate for not following orders). Vince Vaughn brings nothing original to the role of a foul-mouthed drill sergeant, but he does provide some pep to the film’s saggy middle act, and the jarheaded Sam Worthington is perfectly believable as the group’s commanding officer. The rest of Doss’s unit is filled out with relative nobodies, a cast of grunts ready to either meet their grim death on the battlefield or get dragged to safety by the hero. The philosophical dispute over Doss’s pacifism is rendered in the broadest possible terms (he’s frequently bathed in heavenly light as he sticks up for his beliefs). He’s branded disobedient by every level of authority, but Gibson is obviously stacking the deck against all of Doss’s detractors, confident in the knowledge they’ll all be proven wrong.
When the film reaches Okinawa, Hacksaw Ridge grabs viewers and shoves them headfirst into an hour of bloody chaos. Gibson has long excelled at spectacular set-pieces of battle, but one reason Hacksaw Ridge stands out is because its war scenes are largely free of cliché. The carnage is unsparing and shocking, the military tactics (a push to take the island’s titular mountainous ridge) hard to understand, and the loss of life frustratingly random. Gibson’s veneration of Doss’s faith makes sense, but it’s difficult to tell whether the director is also using the movie to reflect on the amorality of violence.
Too often, Gibson leans heavily on Christ-like imagery as Doss proves his bravery—carrying wounded men on his back through artillery fire, even rescuing Japanese soldiers (who are mostly portrayed as a terrifying, faceless horde). As Doss repeatedly proves his devotion to saving lives without bloodshed, repeating his mantra of “Dear God, just let me get one more,” Gibson cuts to American soldiers breaking through the Japanese front and setting their enemies aflame—it’s a disturbing dichotomy the director seems to only have a slim grasp of. Ultimately, Hacksaw Ridge works best as a film devoted to Doss, and a replication of the horror of the Pacific Theater. For all the film’s verisimilitude, and its compassion for Doss, its larger message about war unfortunately feels as obscure as its hero’s own motivations.