REVIEW: ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (2016)

Hacksaw Ridge: The Passion of Andrew Garfield

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I need to make a confession.  I have seen Hacksaw Ridge twice.  The first time I was so moved that, once the credits were over, I stayed in my seat for a few more minutes before I could summon the energy to stand.  I found it such an overwhelming experience that I returned to see it the next day.  That experience was overwhelming, too.  I do not have the proper distance from the film in order to provide anything approaching a definitive analysis, because my thoughts on it won’t solidify.  Maybe in a few months I’ll be able to, but for now, come with me as I flail about and wrestle with Mel Gibson’s new movie.  Which is a masterpiece, surely.

Let me tell you what I think. I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats—any kind of threats, whether of jail or of retribution after death—then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion tamer in the circus with his whip, not the prophet who sacrificed himself. But don’t you see, this is just the point—what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the powerful attraction of its example.

It has always been assumed that the most important things in the Gospels are the ethical maxims and commandments. But for me the most important thing is that Christ speaks in parables taken from life, that He explains the truth in terms of everyday reality. The idea that underlies this is that communion between mortals is immortal, and that the whole of life is symbolic because it is meaningful.

—Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

For those who do not know, Gibson’s film follows Desmond Doss, the only Congressional Medal of Honour winner never to have fired a gun in combat.  Doss was a staunch pacifist, but believed that this did not preclude him from offering his life to his country.  He was a deeply religious man, and felt, quite rightly, that his Christian convictions utterly forbade him from taking another human life, and using an instrument of death like a gun.

Hacksaw Ridge is cleanly divided into three acts.  In the first, we see Doss’s upbringing: his relationships with his raucous brother, pious mother, and drunk father, his courtship of future wife Dorothy Schutte, and how he comes to enlist in the Army.  Act two chronicles his experiences in boot camp, and how his fellow soldiers test his faith—for surely, refusing to fire a gun is the sign of a coward!   Act three is the grand centrepiece of the film, the battle for Hacksaw Ridge, so nightmarish, bloody, and godless, it often resembles medieval paintings of Hell.

Hacksaw RidgeDuring both of my screenings of Hacksaw Ridge I kept wondering why so much conservative art is so very, very bad, yet Gibson is able to transcend this.  Much of it has to do with the insane lack of nuance in overly partisan cinema (God’s Not Dead, October Baby; Zootopia and Snowden from this year on the liberal side)—how the filmmaker needs you to understand his point so much that he keeps beating you over the head with it until your ears bleed.  Gibson is not a subtle director, far from it, but he does manage to make conservative cinema that is challenging for its intended audience.

Take The Passion of the Christ. Many non-religious (or otherwise liberal, wink wink) critics accused it of being torture-porn and drawing out its bloodbath for way too long.  But what Gibson is really doing is examining an idea—Christ’s sacrifice—fully, bringing it to its logical conclusion.  After all, he is a Christian, and his point was that if you’re going to accept part of the Gospels, or any particular Station of the Cross, then you have to accept them all.  It’s very safe just to say ‘I’m a Christian!  Jesus died for my sins yay!’ and quite another to confront exactly what that entailed for your saviour.1

Hacksaw Ridge does the same thing.  He takes an idea—one man’s inflexible pacifism—and, again, relentlessly follows it to its logical conclusion.   This can be seen in the film’s structure.  Act one shows us the foundation for Doss’s faith, how it develops and crystallises.  Act two, the business in boot camp, shows how his faith is tested in the World of Man.  And act three, the theatre of war, shows us how his faith can prevail in the Cosmic, Spiritual Battle of Good and Evil.  ‘Who among you has such faith?’ Gibson asks us.  In the United States, at least, it seems being a conservative Christian goes hand-in-hand with supporting gun use, so how many American conservatives are going to accept Doss’s (Gibson’s?) philosophy easily?

Hacksaw RidgeThe Passion of the Christ, in part, asked if a man’s faith could withstand the complete and utter destruction of his body.  The deck was stacked a bit there—after all, in addition to being 100% human, Gibson’s Jesus was also 100% divine, so He had a pretty clear understanding of the endgame.  In Hacksaw Ridge, however, Desmond Doss has no such understanding.  All he has is his reservoir of religious conviction, and it causes him to accomplish miracles he otherwise would be helpless to achieve.

Andrew Garfield has always been a talented actor, and his work in Never Let Me Go and 99 Homes hinted that he may have the reach and depth for several great performances.  Here is one of them.  He strips away any semblance of artifice or guile, we hardly seem to be witnessing acting—we’re witnessing being.  When he asks Dorothy out on a date, he seems to be looking into her soul and asking it to waltz.  When he calls out to God, ‘Please, let me save just one more,’ you feel that this man is a beacon to the Almighty.  This is raw, naked emotion: like Brando in Last Tango in Paris, Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour, or Mel Gibson in… anything, really.  Garfield doesn’t disappear into his role—he’s not that kind of actor—he lets it shine through him so brightly it could bring tears to your eyes.

Hacksaw RidgeAlas, the film does have one major debit: Simon Duggan’s cinematography.  I’m unsure whether it’s his Arri Alexa camera, numerous unfortunate lighting choices (the sun seems to be coming from two different positions during a few scenes), or some perfect storm combination of the two, but a chunk of the film looks cringingly fake.  I’m told that Gibson eschewed visual effects save for much of the battle sequences; if true, I find it not a little distressing that so many of the other outdoor scenes look green-screened.  (It’s also a wise decision, as the visual effects aren’t wholly convincing either.)

But ignore that, and see Hacksaw Ridge anyway.  It is one of the year’s best films.

Hacksaw Ridge

1[Side note: I only saw The Passion of the Christ one time in the theatre, but I distinctly remember that one woman had to be carried out halfway through it.  She was crying as hard as I’ve ever seen a woman cry, saying ‘I’m not worth that,’ over and over again.  Did the film inspire her to become a better person?  I don’t know; I never saw her again.  But Gibson is the kind of director that has the power to change people, and Hacksaw Ridge is also an example of this talent.]

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