In Hacksaw Ridge, you will see a small boy hit his brother in the face with a brick. A soldier will lift up another man’s torso and use it as a human shield. You’ll see disembowelings and decapitations, limbs blown off and people buried alive, and did I mention this is a film about a pacifist? One that celebrates his commitment to nonviolence? Rarely has a film ever wrestled so determinedly with itself.
Some will argue that this central contradiction makes the movie feel disjointed, or that it only means there is something for everyone to dislike. The very presence of Mel Gibson behind the camera will be too much for many, but there is something refreshing about a commercial film that challenges us with juxtaposition and refuses to placate its base, particularly in this gerrymandered political era. Hacksaw Ridge brazenly challenges its audience in both form and content, and it might just be the most subversive piece of pop art this year.
Its opening scenes grapple with America’s small-town mythology. As a child in picturesque rural Virginia, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) witnesses violence both within and without. He nearly kills his brother in a routine fistfight, egged on by his father (Hugo Weaving), an emotionally-crippled and abusive WWI vet. But Doss quashes his darkness through deeds and faith. A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, he dreams of becoming a doctor but settles for romancing a local nurse (Teresa Palmer). Compelled by patriotism, he signs up to fight in WWII but won’t give up his ideals: He agrees to be a medic and refuses to carry a weapon. “While everybody is taking life, I’m going to be saving it,” Doss states defiantly.
His optimism is severely tested, however, in a protracted battle for a mountain ledge that holds key strategic value in the Pacific theater. It’s a scene just as bloody as the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan, but filmed with the cheap viscerality of a Saw movie. Blood gushes, bodies are ripped in half, and bullets explode human heads. It’s jarring to see war filtered through B-movie conventions—especially in a prestige picture like Hacksaw Ridge—but it also gives viewers an avenue towards understanding a chaos that is almost unimaginable, and it further underlines Doss’ heroism. He wilfully enters a waking nightmare with only his principles to protect him, and somehow emerges unscathed.
The film is not wrapped quite as tightly in its values. Despite its gruesome violence, Hacksaw Ridge plays as a surprisingly potent anti-gun parable. At one point, Doss plainly states, “I refuse to bear arms,” language that connotes a comment on our present-day political battles. Given that Gibson’s fan base is composed predominantly of members of a certain pro-gun political party, this is an impressively bold move. The film reserves plenty of reverence for those who do fight (and take quite a bit of life over the course of the film), but it clearly holds Doss in even higher esteem. They may be heroes, but he’s a superhero, made nearly invincible by his commitment to compassion.
Still, Hacksaw Ridge would have been a stronger, more complex work if it were interested in Doss as anything more than a hero or a Christ figure. If you’ve seen a war movie before, you expect it to end with a homecoming, where Doss is reunited with the loving wife and family he left behind. It never does. Nor does the film include any real historical context; the fact that Hacksaw Ridge was one of the last battles fought in WWII oddly never comes up. And the idea that the Japanese soldiers might be actual human beings, as opposed to the very personification of evil itself, is nearly unthinkable here. Gibson isn’t interested in context, only in symbols. At least he knows how to use them.
Hacksaw Ridge opens Friday at theaters everywhere.