Hacksaw Ridge

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 4, 2016

Andrew Garfield stars in 'Hacksaw Ridge'
Andrew Garfield stars in 'Hacksaw Ridge'  

Burning bodies fly through the air in balletic slow motion. Bullets rip through bodies, raising clouds of blood mist. Limbs are blown off, and ragged tatters of flesh trail from the stumps. Director Mel Gibson doesn't shy away from the grotesque brutalities of war in "Hacksaw Ridge," despite his new film being a worshipful study of a young religious man enduring the contempt of his own countrymen and the unrelenting dangers of enemy fire in order to serve on the front lines as a non-violent medic, armed not with a rifle but with morphine, bandages, and tourniquets.

"Hacksaw Ridge" is only the name of the location where the film's extended, intense scenes of battle take place. The story begins years earlier, when protagonist Desmond Doss (played by Darcy Bryce as a boy and by Andrew Garfield as an adult) almost kills his brother with a brick during a heated scrap. A decade and a half after this unfortunate incident, Desmond happens to be in the right place at the right time when a young man suffers an accident and severs an artery. Doss, keeping calm, applies a tourniquet and saves the victim; at the hospital he catches sight of a lovely young nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and, in his gormless way, launches a sweet and earnest courtship. He feeds his intellectual curiosity about medicine by loaning him medical texts.

After the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, Desmond "[takes] it personal," as do many young men across the United States, and -- like his brother Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) -- he enlists. Father Tom (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic veteran of World War I who wrestles with PTSD, disapproves on both counts, but especially in Desmond's case. The war -- and for that matter, the United States Army -- isn't much going to appreciate or understand Desmond's plans to serve as a medic and eschew carrying a rifle.

In this, Tom is correct. Everyone from his platoon captain (Sam Worthington) to the drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) to his fellow enlistees (which include an array of colorful characters) to even more formidable higher-ups in the chain of command miss the point of Desmond's desire to serve without killing, and dismiss him as a "coward." At the sarge's behest, the others in Desmond's company deal him a savage beating -- but the resulting bruises don't make a dent in his determination. Harder to deal with is his arrest for refusing to obey a direct order to handle a weapon, but Desmond is willing to face court-martial rather than violate his Christian conscience. (His longer-than-regulation length and perpetually styled hair is similarly invulnerable to all challenges.)

When put to the test, though, Desmond's unwavering faith -- and his courage in the heat of intense battle with the Japanese at Hacksaw Ridge, a veritable killing field where soldiers on both sides are maimed and slaughtered -- carry him through a stunning feat of service. This is filmmaking of a fine and effective order, but with both faith-based pacifism and balls-out warfare being given such hard scrutiny you might be forgiven for not being entirely certain what Gibson's intent is or what he wants you to take away from the film.

And make no mistake, the action is cutting edge -- or rather, bleeding edge, emphasis on bleeding. Imagine the opening salvo of "Saving Private Ryan" ramped up in duration and violence, and that's what the firefight and its carnage are like. Those colorful members of the company? Some of them are gunned down in the very first moments of the engagement. Others survive harrowing odds and heroic feats of valor, only to die later on. Some of the most graphic and disturbing images you'll ever see in a war film are carried off here with technical perfection and heart-wrenching results.

Perhaps Gibson means this film to be a parable, something along the lines of, "The flesh is rendered into hamburger, but the spirit is indomitable." Quieter and more useful, though, is Desmond's defense of himself during his court-martial. The world is destroying itself in a conflagration of war, Desmond notes; what's so terrible about his wanting to patch up some of that wounded world?

For souls weary of this horrifying election year, those words -- much more than the film's images of bodily destruction and brute force -- will resonate.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.