Film / Reviews

Review: Hacksaw Ridge

By Robin Askew , Tuesday Jan 17, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge (15)

Australia/USA 2016  139 mins  Dir: Mel Gibson  Cast: Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey

At first glance, a true-life drama about a conscientious objector might seem like a poor fit for a filmmaker as conservative as Mel Gibson. Look closer, however, and you’ll find it pushes all his other buttons, notably unbending religious faith and the urge to inflict extreme violence and mutilation upon the human body. Remember the lip-smacking relish of his 2004 Christian torture porn flick, The Passion of the Christ? Mad Mel’s latest rehabilitation drama is also at pains to underline its protagonist’s unimpeachable bravery under fire and feels for the most part like an old-fashioned studio combat flick unencumbered by nuance but blessed with state-of-the-art blood’n’guts.

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Except for the conchie twist, the first hour or so revisits every war movie scene-setting cliché you’ve ever seen. Spider-man himself (big-haired Andrew Garfield, for it is he) is well cast as lanky, wet-behind-the-ears Seventh Day Adventist youth Desmond Doss, who appears to live in some kind of mythical Virginia small town. Dad (Hugo Weaving) is a broken, drunken, wife-beating brute whose hobby is hanging out at the cemetery talking to the graves of his dead WWI buddies. So naturally, he’s none too pleased when both his sons enlist to fight in WWII. Our Desmond, however, is determined to exercise his constitutional right not to bear arms. How come? Well, in a moment that’s emblematic of the film’s lack of subtlety, we see him whack his brother about the head with a bloody great brick, nearly killing the poor lad, which leads him to foreswear violence.

What’s missing? Oh yes, the sweetheart back home. Enter sexy nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), who’s seduced by his aw-shucks charm and presents him with a pocket-sized bible containing a snap of herself for him to mislay at a dramatically convenient moment later on. Next up is the mandatory boot camp bonding section, with Vince Vaughn doing the shouting. He’s an unlikely casting choice, but gets the job done well enough despite being no R. Lee Ermy. Desmond is inevitably bullied for his perceived cowardice by the blokes who will come to rely on him later on, the brass do their darnedest to railroad him out of the army, and there’s a brief detour into courtroom drama as our hero is court-martialled for refusing to obey orders and establishes his right to serve as a battlefield medic.

Having spent the best part of an hour directing with all the finesse of someone trying to play the piano while wearing oven gloves, Gibson is finally in his element when Doss’s platoon is shipped off to participate in the positively suicidal battle of Okinawa. The lorry loads of corpses accompanied by shell-shocked survivors trudging in the opposite direction do not bode well. Sure enough, the patriotic cannon fodder arrive to find themselves expected to scale a sheer rock face and do battle with hordes of well dug-in, undifferentiated ‘Japs’ (unlike fellow right-winger Clint Eastwood in Letters from Iwo Jima, Gibson evinces no interest whatsoever in humanising the enemy).

Gibson seems to have set himself the challenge of outdoing the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan by conjuring up the most intense, gruesome and brutal combat sequences ever captured on film, with bodies being blown apart in slo-mo and incinerated on a battlefield littered with maggoty corpses and heaps of intestines. It’s undeniably thrilling and skilfully choreographed, if sometimes almost comically relentless, adding up to the bloodiest war porn movie ever to celebrate the life of a pacifist. The unkind might even call it disingenuous.

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