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Review: "Hacksaw Ridge"

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.

Grade: C

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Reader Comments (10)

Am I the only person who thinks Garfield should have WON the Oscar for Never Let me Go?

November 3, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Finally a review that tells the reader exactly what is going on with this hack job.

Thanks for not making excuses to welcome this sociopath back, though I suspect the Trump crowd will eat it up this weekend. Are we sure Trump had nothing to do with the production of this?

November 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Abig fan of Garfield and glad he's got back to real acting,him & Stone

November 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDON

Patryk: Unless you're talking Diana level obvious wrecks, always look at a potentially problematic or boring biographical picture as having anywhere from 20-40% worth of padding on Rotten Tomatoes. Biopics get really soft takes from a lot of critics.

November 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Cal Roth: I believe it would have been a Supporting Actor nomination and Christopher Plummer won for Beginners that year. I'm not sure I would take the Oscar away from him. Funny enough though I would take the nominations from most of who was nominated in the category because its not the greatest group of nominees. Andrew Garfield's performance is just phenomenal in Never Let Me Go and if he had won it would have been very worthy IMHO.

November 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Garfield vs Plummer: It's painful to decide, but I'd still vote for Garfield. His work in Never Let me Go is just brilliant.

November 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

So happy to see that there is agreement here as to the worth of Garfield's performance in "Never let me go'. That movie is so criminally underrated and I hope it is re-discovered at some point. As for Hacksaw Ridge I'm a hard pass. These days I only watch War movies if I trust the director to be sophisticated enough to capture the nuances of the absurdity of war. Something tells me that Mel Gibson is not skilled or intelligent enough to make a compelling movie about war.

November 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

Cal Roth and Brian: Never Let Me Go was 2010, which was the same year he was in the mix for The Social Network. Christian Bale won that year, Christopher Plummer was 2011.

I do think he was Oscar worthy in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go, but I lean toward the former.

November 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKeelay!

Christian Bale was in fact unbeatable, sorry Garfield

November 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I am torn between my extreme distaste for Mel Gibson and my extreme love for Andrew Garfield. Sadly, I think the former will win out in this case, unless Garfield gets an Oscar nod.

November 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

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