Sunday, November 6, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

3.5/4

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths

Rated R for Intense Prolonged Realistically Graphic Sequences of War Violence Including Grisly Bloody Images

The story of Desmond Doss couldn't be filmed if it wasn't a true story.  It's too extraordinary to be believed.  Yet it is true.  One man, a Conscientious Objector who refused to even hold a weapon, saving the lives of 75 men singlehandedly.  No one would believe it.  But it is true, and for his efforts, Doss received the Medal of Honor.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) is a bashful kid living in Virginia at a time when the world had gone to hell.  He developed an interest in medicine at a young age, but with little schooling becoming a doctor was next to impossible.  However, the army presents an opportunity for him to be trained as a medic and he won't have to kill anyone.  At least that's what Desmond was told.  Nevertheless, when he arrives at basic training, he's ordered to perform weapons training.  Citing his Seventh Day Adventist beliefs, Desmond refuses.  Branded a coward and hauled before a court-martial hearing, Desmond's choices are either quit or be locked up for the remainder of the war.  Fortunately a last minute intervention gets him off the hook and he becomes a source of inspiration for his fellow soldiers.

The film's roughest parts are the first few scenes in which Andrew Garfield appears.  Garfield is a winning actor, but he overplays Desmond's "aww shucks" gawkiness.  Instead of making the character vulnerable and endearing, it makes him seem like some sort of idiot savant.  Still, in the broad spectrum of the movie, it's not a huge problem.  Just big enough to be worth pointing out.  And the romance between Desmond and a pretty nurse named Dorothy (Palmer) is effectively realized, it feels a little shortchanged.

Mel Gibson has never been afraid of violence or bloodshed in his movies.  After all, this is the guy who directed "The Passion of the Christ."  True to form, "Hacksaw Ridge" is loaded with graphic images of violence.  Bodies ripped apart, severed limbs, a bunch of intestines, and so on.  It's not as harrowing as "Saving Private Ryan," but it comes close.

The performances are strong, even from those not normally known for their range.  Apart from his few opening scenes, Andrew Garfield turns in a fine performance as the gangly but earnest Desmond.  Although a long shot, Garfield could conceivably be nominated for an Oscar (no doubt Summit Entertainment is hoping for the same thing).  Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn and especially Luke Bracey, none of whom are known to be great dramatic actors, provide excellent support.  Hugo Weaving sheds his trademark drawl to play Desmond's alcoholic father who is all too familiar with war.  And Teresa Palmer is lovely but underused as Dorothy.

"Hacksaw Ridge" gets better as it goes along.  The film gets off to a rocky start, but quickly finds its groove.  The scenes in basic training are compelling if recycled from other, better movies.  The undisputed highlight is the Battle at Okinawa.  Expertly choreographed and visually thrilling, this is high quality filmmaking.  It's real, visceral and brutal.  What makes it so exciting is that Gibson allows the film to tour other parts of the battle rather than keep the focus firmly on Desmond.  We see other faceless characters fight it out to the death in short one-on-one battles.  We see men who are alive one second and dead the next.  And we see the horrible results of flamethrowers, one of which explodes on the wearer's back.  And there's a dream sequence that literally made me scream.

One area where the film falters is in its tone.  At times it's clear that Gibson is making a genre movie but the brutality of the violence hints at a far more serious affair.  For the most part Gibson manages to navigate this balance, but when your movie recalls "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Lord of the Rings," it's a bit of a disconnect.

All that aside, this is still a great movie.  It's definitely worth a trip to the theater, and when I create my Top 10 list this year, it will be on it and certainly somewhere near the top.

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