How does a movie about the most peaceful soldier in our history, real-life conscientious objector Desmond Doss turn into the most brutal war film in decades? In the hands of Mel Gibson it's pretty easy, and his penchant for the over-the-top gore and torture reaches a climax with Hacksaw Ridge, as well as his indelicate handling of faith. Gibson's inability to bring a measured approach nearly treads over Doss' deeply affecting, truly remarkable story like a Sherman tank across a muddy battlefield. For Doss the man is already extraordinary, but Gibson sets out to make him divine.
If you don't know who Desmond Doss was, he's someone who is worth investing some time to learn about. Doss was a pacifist, a Seventh Day Adventist who enlisted in the Army and served as a combat medic during WWII. He refused to kill and flatly denied attempts to be given a weapon. During the Battle of Okinawa he single-handedly saved the lives of 75 wounded men and was awarded the Medal of Honor, the first conscientious objector to ever do so. He credits his heroic efforts that night to God, saying repeatedly "Please God, help me find one more" as he searched for more of his fallen comrades to rescue.
That Doss was a man of unwavering faith isn't the problem; it's that Gibson weaponizes it into cinematic conversion therapy. It begins when we meet a child-aged Doss who goes a little too far playing around with his brother and nearly kills him. Through the tears of his mother (Rachel Griffiths) and PTSD-afflicted father (Hugo Weaving), Doss begins to focus obsessively on the Ten Commandments, in particular the sixth one: "Thou shalt not kill". Years later we meet him as an adult (now played by a mousy Andrew Garfield) who has seen his father struggle with survivor's guilt from his time in WWI. He's also seen most of the local boys enlist to serve in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Despite having just met and fallen in love with a beautiful local nurse (Teresa Palmer), Doss enlists over his father's objections.
But how does a man who has vowed never to kill intend to serve during a time of war? The film's central conflict is whether Doss will be forced to compromise his ideals and bend on his faith to conform to the demands of war. Of course, the men in his unit aren't too happy about having a peacenik on their side. This plays out as predictably as you might expect. The commanding officer (Sam Worthington) singles him out, the Sgt. (Vince Vaughn) thinks he ought to quit, and a bruising soldier named Smitty (Luke Bracey) bullies Doss mercilessly, until he eventually wins them over, of course. Most of the non-battlefield scenes are constructed rather formally, as if they're just the perfunctory window dressing before the action really takes place. Gibson can't help himself even before the fighting begins, spilling blood wherever he can find the tiniest reason to do it. A mechanic's accident sends blood spurting like a geyser, a nurse's needle cracking the surface of the skin like an icepick, flashbacks of soldiers explosively spinning through the air like tops. By the time Doss actually steps onto the field of battle you're already desensitized to it.
Gibson is most comfortable once the bullets start flying, though. It gives him free license to be as gruesome as possible and he doesn't shy away from it at all. The sheer brutality of it so shocking as to be disorienting; limbs and messy entrails scattered everywhere, heads blow off of bodies, and scores of rats devouring the newly-dead. Gibson contrasts Doss' miraculously peaceful efforts with scenes of unimaginable human cost, but it's a miscalculation that serves only as a distraction. Worse is Gibson's insistence that Doss' faith is what truly carried him through. Again, it's fine that Doss expresses this sentiment himself, but Gibson depicts him as a literal Christ-like figure. In one purely cheeseball scene, Doss is lowered on a stretcher and the camera captures him splayed out like Jesus on the crucifix, being brought down to earth from the heavens above. There are many little moments like that, but all they serve to do is undercut Doss' tangible, human accomplishments. But Gibson undermines the human for the spiritual at every turn, and that goes double for the Japanese soldiers. We learn literally nothing about them, which is fine since this movie is about Doss. However, there's a totally inexplicable scene, done to excruciating detail, where we see one Japanese commander commit suicide by seppuku once he realizes the battle is lost. Why was that there other than to feed Gibson's blood lust?
Hacksaw Ridge is billed as "a true story", suggesting that no Hollywood embellishment went into it at all. There's a lot that happens to dispel that notion, but when you see the actual Doss in archival footage talking humbly about what he did, it makes you want to believe every single bit of it. It also makes you wish Hacksaw Ridge was a movie more about him and less about making a statement.
Rating: 3 out of 5