War is Hell.
This is the age-old sentiment, a mantra for both the wearied soldier and the rallied activist. The opening montage of Hacksaw Ridge, captured in slow motion between dusty explosions that haze the screen, is the visual incarnation of this well-worn phrase. Flamethrowers and gunfire making charred puppets out of people. It is no storming of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan, perhaps the modern framework of the war battle sequence, but it is still something.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), after being raised in a contentious household with an abusive father (Hugo Weaving, in a powerful but short turn), joins the army with the hopes of saving lives. The only problem with this is that he refuses to take them. The struggle therein, as well as a genuinely sweet romantic subplot, make up the emotional crux of the film.
Hacksaw Ridge is, by and large, a war film as we have seen it time and time again save for the added twist of pacifism. The narrative arc is conventional: a boy raised and called to arms, boot camp, war, aftermath. The added quirk of conscientious objection causes but one added wrinkle: camaraderie is hard to come by in an army that rejects his refusal to carry a rifle.
Just as the narrative trajectory is easily recognizable, the ethical thematics are equally surface level. The courage of pacifism in the face of violence paints Doss as a Christ figure. Indeed, the religious angle is taken in full.
This said, the film holds itself up all the same in its biography of an American hero. The film is carried to the end by Garfield’s performance and Gibson’s deft hand at direction.
There is a crisp warm to the film’s aesthetic, a glorification of those who serve in depiction of life and loss. It is truly a gorgeous film. Gibson truly knows how to handle the heft of a battlefield sequence.
Beautiful as the choreography and cinematics go in these scenes, there is a redundancy to the film’s lengthy war sequence. For the time it fills, it develops little. It may be the realization of our protagonist’s heroism, but this realization takes a long time to come to fruition, held off by reiterations of past characterization and battle sequences that are style over substance, phenomenal but not illuminating.
Perhaps the major misstep of the film comes in its bevy of supporting characters. A scene in boot camp takes its time to introduce an entire unit individually. These men then fade into the background for the sake of Doss’s story, where he is almost thrown out of the army for his conscientious objector status. These supporting characters are then thrown into a battlefield where distinguishing who is who is almost impossible. There is a loss of emotional resonance in this masking of character.
As far as war films go, it has all been done under the sun. Hacksaw Ridge adds a touch while being a lot of the same. Still, it has the viscera, the heart, and the production behind it to provide a strong addition to the genre.
Hacksaw Ridge: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)