Directed by Mel Gibson
Opens November 2
The last time a Mel Gibson-directed film was released during a presidential election year—and I assume many other critics will also point this out—was 2004, when The Passion of the Christ became a political/cultural flashpoint for its anti-Semitic undertones and ultra-graphic crucifixion of Jesus. But, to paraphrase our latest Noble Prize winner in literature, the times have most certainly a-changed: this election year’s most controversial movie has been a remake of Ghostbusters, while the campaign itself has exceeded all possible dramatic or metaphoric representation in its grotesquerie.
Gibson has undergone significant changes since 2004 as well, most notably through a personal and professional meltdown that needn’t be specifically recounted here. I have no idea, nor care, how Gibson responded to that crisis in his day-to-day life, but judging from Hacksaw Ridge, his newest directorial effort, he appears to have been humbled artistically. Ridge continues Gibson’s obsession with violent male martyrdom, yet the film remains so dependent on the narrative and stylistic conventions of the World War II combat film that it loses the disturbingly (albeit dunderheadedly) primitive qualities that made Gibson’s directorial efforts relatively unique within the realm of Hollywood filmmaking. I actually found myself wishing that Hacksaw Ridge was a cinematic bombshell on the order of The Passion or even Apocalypto (2006), his other brutal clash-of-civilizations epic. Something, anything should’ve broken through as cinematic agitation in 2016 (the top two candidates, The Birth of a Nation and TrumpLand, failed to make an impression at the box office and in the popular imagination), but Ridge is about as tepid as deafening, blood-soaked movies come.
Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the younger of two brothers in a Seventh Day Adventist Virginian family. Doss learns pacifism from his religious upbringing as well as from the school of life—traumatized from serving and losing loved ones in World War I, his father Tom (Hugo Weaving) advocates against enlistment after the bombing of Pearl Harbor even as he unleashes alcohol-fueled beatings upon his wife (Rachel Griffiths) and sons. At the outset of WWII Doss meets cute with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a local nurse, and then, inspired by her, enlists in the army in order to serve as a medic. In boot camp Doss refuses to touch a gun, setting in motion official (psychological profiling) and unofficial (hazing) attempts by military personnel to rid themselves of a soldier who could easily be a liability in the field. A court-martial ensues—due to a last-minute order from top brass Desmond is acquitted and journeys to Okinawa minus any weapon to protect himself.
These events occur in the first half of the film, and none of them are conveyed in a convincing manner. You can tell Gibson’s heart isn’t in any of it—with the possible exception of the father-son conflict (Weaving delivers the film’s best performance), he does nothing to dramatically enliven Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s cliché-ridden script, which is at its worst when pretending the aw-shucks screen versions of Desmond and Dorothy talk and act like human beings. Even the boot camp scenes are hand-me-downs: as a no-nonsense drill sergeant Vince Vaughn goes all R. Lee Ermey on his new cadets, resulting in their humiliating and violent treatment of Doss, but Gibson holds back on a thorough investigation of systematic military dehumanization à la Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The court-martial lacks suspense, which is understandable (we know Doss will become a hero on the battlefield), but with its deus ex machina the script also sidesteps any philosophical examination of Doss’s claims to conscientious objection. Does Doss’s stance make sense when his refusal to bear arms in combat could put his life and the lives of others in jeopardy? What are the religious, legal, and practical limits of his argument? These questions are only superficially addressed, and definitely not answered.
In the world of Gibson all issues are filtered through or else resolved by cataclysmic violence, and so Hacksaw Ridge comes alive only in its recreation of the titular battle, where Doss proves his valor, determination, and selflessness by surviving the carnage and administering to the fallen. Did you know that war is hell? In the merciless fighting between US and Japanese troops bodies are torn apart, eviscerated, and burned alive, all of these horrors captured in loving detail. Yet such scenes lack cinematic originality or inspiration—Gibson cops several moments from Saving Private Ryan (including the saved-by-helmet-only-to-be-shot-in-the-head-a-second-later “gag”) and thrice resorts to obvious jump scares, one of which he botches (too quickly Gibson reveals to the camera a corpse meant to surprise both Doss and the audience). What meager visual imagination Ridge offers resides in its stunt work, special effects, and unshakeable desire to figuratively pulverize eyeballs. But even here Gibson is late to the party. Maybe I’ve become old and jaded, but “gritty,” “lifelike,” “documentary-style” cinematic depictions of warfare just can’t make an impact in 2016 like they did in the days of Ryan. Granted, I no longer understand why the technical virtuosity of faithfully recreating the horrors of combat should possess some sort of inherent artistic merit or truth-value, but in any case we live in the Tarantino age of cinematic violence, and in this regard Gibson’s Ridge (which not so secretly fetishizes the mayhem it feigns to abhor) merely spits in the ocean.
There’s another flaw. To say Doss’s heroism went above and beyond the call of duty would be a gross understatement—after a tactical U.S. retreat, the man stayed behind to save the lives of seventy-five men wounded on a battlefield still overrun by Japanese soldiers. The problem with the dramatic realization of this incredible story is that in the arena of ideas Doss has little to contend against. The central figure in Gibson’s work from behind the camera has always been the ideologically persecuted man whose intense physical suffering (or, in the case of The Man Without a Face, scarring) consecrates his steadfast values. Indeed, Gibson’s directorial work stands apart from most Hollywood fare by almost completely eschewing character development. The protagonists of Gibson’s films don’t grow, change, or learn—instead they are continually sanctified through severe corporeal endurance and punishment. (The characters that grow, change, or learn are those who gradually realize just how saintly is the protagonist.) Rather than anything advocated by Syd Field, the narrative structure that sustains Gibson’s vision is the Stations of the Cross.
Cleverly, Gibson has placed his variations on the Stations (or, in the case of The Passion, the Stations themselves) in historical settings with clearly (and reductively) polarized belief systems: cultural traditionalism versus cultural relativism in the late 60s in The Man Without a Face, independence versus monarchism in medieval Britain in Braveheart, etc. Hacksaw Ridge, however, takes place during the last major war Americans agree was worth fighting. The political or moral reasons for participating in the war are not, nor could they be, at stake here, and so Doss proves through his actions the extreme extent of his personal courage and faith. That’s fine, but by the time the troops fight on the Ridge it shouldn’t be a point of contention as to whether someone purposefully entering a combat zone without a firearm possesses these qualities—the filmmakers’ attempts to make the other characters, and thus the audience, stand in total, and not just partial, awe of Doss ring false. Even when portraying the sheer awesomeness of Doss’s heroism Gibson defuses any drama, rushing Doss’s one moment of doubt so that he calls out to and then receives an answer from God (“What is it you want from me? I can’t hear you!”) in about fifteen seconds of screen time. The emotional and psychological dimensions of Ridge remain non-existent; meanwhile the beatification of the protagonist is brought to full visual flower through endless slo-mo shots and an emergency airlift-as-ascension.
With Ridge Gibson has tried to return to his baptism-by-fire shtick, but the film’s platitudinous romantic elements and Greatest Generation-humping (all of Doss’ fellow soldiers are stock Hollywood military types possessing exactly one character trait) ill-suit his troglodytic cinematic style and worldview. I don’t believe that Gibson cares to pay lip service to anything remotely humanistic in his films, and has only done so here to resurrect his left-for-dead directorial career. But then Hacksaw Ridge is meant for the last remaining True American Believers: in religion, in the nation, and in a mythical past where these concepts weren’t—nor could ever become—the source of division.