War is hell, even for those who believe in heaven.
The horrors of the World War II battlefront are seen through the eyes of a devout soldier in the stunning military drama Hacksaw Ridge (*** out of four; rated R; opens Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles; in theaters nationwide Friday). Brutally intense and elegantly crafted, the film showcases the stellar acting chops of Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn, and it’s director Mel Gibson’s best work behind the scenes since 1995’s Oscar best-picture winner Braveheart.
Hacksaw Ridge does wrestle with overt preachiness and wartime clichés in telling the story of real-life hero Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector awarded the Medal of Honor. A Seventh-day Adventist who refused to touch a firearm because of his religious beliefs, Doss used his wits, determination and skill as an Army medic to save 75 soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
In the film, Desmond sees the destructive nature of violence as a child and has his steadfast belief system in place when he’s a young man (Garfield). Still, because his brother and other boys in town enlist in the war effort, Desmond does the same — much to the dismay of his new girlfriend Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and his veteran father (Hugo Weaving).
Desmond outperforms most everyone in boot camp but his hesitancy with weapons causes a rift among his peers and leadership, including his drill master (Vaughn), and puts his career at the mercy of a court martial. His Army mates question if he can adequately serve his country and watch their backs, yet he ultimately proves himself when his company engages the Japanese in the Pacific theater.
Gibson might still be a pariah in some corners of Hollywood as a result of anti-Semitic remarks made a decade ago, but nonetheless proves again that he’s a passionate, gifted filmmaker. While characters and imagery are imbued with his own Christian views, he takes a secular approach to his visceral battle scenes, a la Saving Private Ryan.
As he did so well in Braveheart, Gibson explores the reasons men fight for their country rather than just reveling in blood and gore. He creates a moving visual dichotomy between fresh-faced individuals entering the front and those dead-eyed souls who’ve survived the carnage, while also accurately capturing both sides of the conflict, touching on the spirituality of the Japanese and glimpsing a respectful code of conduct when foes meet eye to eye.
Garfield brings a simple sweetness to Desmond on the homefront and steadfast mettle later on when patching up gruesome injuries. It’s a depth not seen so far from the British actor best known as Spider-Man.
Vaughn is a revelation, combining the acerbic wit of his best comedy roles with a tough-guy edge and impressive emotion. And Weaving also is outstanding as the elder Doss, a shellshocked man haunted by his own World War I experience.
The bucolic life Desmond leaves stands in stark contrast to the ashen landscape where he plies his trade, but Gibson never lets his good-hearted nature falter, even when death seems imminent. Hope conquers all and unshaking faith fuels Hacksaw Ridge’s gripping narrative.