by Chris Feil
Caught between championing pacifism and luxuriating in brutality, Hacksaw Ridge struggles to have it both ways. Telling the story of WWII medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), America’s first conscientious objector (a soldier refusing to bear arms) who rescued over seventy soldiers in a single night. What plays out is part old-fashioned star vehicle for Garfield and part survival epic.
The film is as bloodthirsty as Mel Gibson’s other directorial efforts despite Doss’s message at the center. There is more fascination in the multitude of ways military bodies can be destroyed than Doss’s moral stance against that very violence - Gibson’s gaze is never more invigorated than when someone is brutalized. While the third act could simply be presented as the grim reality of war, it is instead an aimless fetishizing of bloodshed. This won’t come as a surprise to the dissenters of Gibson’s filmography, but the habit is perhaps more glaring given it is directly at odds with the material. The taste level is questionable and the subject gets lost.
However, Andrew Garfield finally makes good on his leading man potential with the film placed squarely on his shoulders. If the film never really illuminates Doss beyond his byline, Garfield remains a absorbing presence thanks to his layered sensitivity. That he finds more shades to the man than what is on the page highlights Garfield’s emotional intuition, but also serves the subject more than the film ultimately does. You'll wish the film surrounding the performance was on his level (but perhaps Martin Scorsese’s looming Silence will service him better).
Hacksaw’s first two thirds before the battlefield may be mannered and stilted, but it plays as an almost reassuringly straightforward biopic thanks to Garfield’s simple charms. The ensemble surrounding him is mostly is given little below the surface to characterize, sometimes at the expense of chemistry with the star - particularly from Teresa Palmer’s love interest and Doss's troupe members. Both Vince Vaughn and Hugo Weaving are the only standouts, but for unfortunately all the wrong reasons.
There is also less aesthetic adeptness to what Gibson renders on screen that the likes of Braveheart, alternating between empty murkiness on the battlefield and bland glossiness back home. Hacksaw lacks the punch of any visual ideas or inspiration, save for one jawdropper of a shot as the battalion summits the titular cliff. Even the Christification that Gibson expectedly lends Doss comes more as a default than an inspiration from the narrative - there’s simply not much connection felt behind the camera to enervate the film.
Even in its admirably traditional approach, Hacksaw Ridge proves that a star vehicle needs more than just a great performance to make it something memorable.