Can a movie about non-violence be violent? That’s the question that tormented me as I watched “Hacksaw Ridge,” a war film of immense power that’s inspiring and emotional but also endlessly brutal. How does director Mel Gibson square the film’s religious values with the film’s gratuitous bloodshed? What amount of gore crosses the line, or is the question moot?
Many war films before “Hacksaw Ridge” have depicted unspeakable horrors on screen, all with the conclusion that war is bad, but the context and the means are what separate the good films from the bad, the noble from the tasteless. In fact, Gibson faced similar questions with his film “The Passion of the Christ.”
But “Hacksaw Ridge” does justify the means. The film is one-dimensional in its value system: life can be disturbing and painful, but those who stay true to faith and belief can do real good in this world. There’s much that can be said about the nature of religion in this film, the absence of other forms of belief than a Christian god, the short sighted approach to the values of the Japanese soldiers, let alone the secular American soldiers as supporting characters. But Gibson so earnestly believes with old-fashioned charm and honest storytelling that such a message is worth sharing, no matter the bloodshed the story requires.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. During World War II, he enlisted as a medic but refused to even touch a rifle, and yet he still managed to save 75 lives on the battlefield while stationed in Okinawa. His story brings to mind another war hero and another war movie with humble roots, “Sergeant York.”
Gibson is indebted to that film, and Garfield’s performance to Gary Cooper. Garfield talks with a lightly high-pitched Southern Gentleman accent, and he carries himself with a star-struck boyish gaze, an inability to hide his smile and a slight skip in his step. He says to his commanding officer during training that he’s a “conscientious cooperator,” expressing his desire to serve despite adhering to his beliefs. Garfield’s sheepish charm stays on the right side of a fine line between carefree and oblivious. It’s a terrific performance.
As for Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge” may be violent in a way only a 2016 movie could be, but it borrows many classical storytelling traditions. The film starts with Desmond growing up in his small country town drawing on Americana for warmth and color. He then inserts a number of melodramatic cutaways to some formative childhood moments, as well as some cute callbacks throughout the film. At one point Desmond tries to tie a knot during training with a single loop. “Look, two hoops for both titties,” says Desmond’s officer (Vince Vaughn), and sure enough it’s that silly knot that will save lives.
Richard Brody in The New Yorker writes a thoughtful review in which he says that Gibson’s portrayal of Christianity lacks specificity. Desmond doesn’t quote verse or scripture, and he’s driven by general faith and a simplistic value system rather than specific ideologies within Christianity. But “Hacksaw Ridge” is effective because Gibson avoids trying to make the film a sermon. Desmond finds religion and values within key moments in his life. As a kid he’s wrestling with his brother before smacking him in the head with a brick, a move that could’ve nearly killed him. He looks to a poster that says, “Thou shalt not kill” and finds God, willing to accept his penance.
The film’s one driving question concerns, “Can Desmond keep his faith?” That question may be simplistic, and other war films have shown more shaded nuance, but Gibson’s filmmaking style is relentless. Constantly Gibson beats him down, berating him during basic training as a coward and a hick or shoving death into our face in the war zone. It’s inspiring to see such fortitude on screen.
Of course the film’s violence is a test unto itself. The American soldiers trudge through a graveyard of corpses and maggots eating out skulls. Limbs will fly across the screen. A man will scream into the camera in a furious close-up before a bullet flies through the back of his head and explodes it. Kamikazes will burst into flames. The amount of death on display here? It’s Biblical. And Gibson’s shot of soldiers scaling an Okinawa ridge suggest the men climbing out of the depths of Hell.
But Gibson’s camera moves briskly and keeps to individual figures rather than large money shots. Similarly to the onslaught of carnage in the opening D-Day sequence of “Saving Private Ryan,” Gibson’s hyper attention to detail and clear visuals, rather than chaotic filmmaking, show a director unwilling to let up or balk at a thing. And yet many of the most memorable moments occur absent any violence, like when Desmond has hidden a wounded companion under dirt to hide him from Japanese soldiers. Gibson puts us at eyeball level, the whites of his eyes popping at the chilling sight of a boot heel right in front of him.
At one point late in the film, a reluctant troop at Okinawa agrees to follow Desmond back into battle. He’s performed a miracle, and they want to feel it. “They believe so much in how you believe.” “Hacksaw Ridge” wears its faith on its sleeve, but it doesn’t try and convert. It’s a noble film about clinging to the belief that shapes who you are, no matter what the circumstances. No film this year has put forth as much put as much skin and blood in the game in testing that faith.