Mel Gibson may not always be a good director, but he's never a stupid one. Hacksaw Ridge, his fifth feature, is blunt and effective, a picture cannily crafted for maximum effect. Whatever subtlety appears onscreen comes from its anchor performance by Andrew Garfield, who plays Desmond Doss, a real-life World War II medic who--as a conscientious objector--refused to carry a weapon but whose bravery saved the lives of at least 50 men in his battalion during the Battle of Okinawa.
Skinny as heck, with a giraffe neck and quizzical eyebrows, Garfield is an Anthony Perkins for today. His Doss is a corn-fed guy who, for a decisive flash of time, will end up carrying the world on his bony shoulders. Doss was a country kid from the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Gibson sets up his backstory in an extended, slightly schmaltzy preamble: we see Doss meeting and courting his future bride (Teresa Palmer) and cringing from the abuse doled out by his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving).
But the picture really sparks when Doss shows up for basic training and makes his spiritual and religious beliefs known. He's a Seventh-Day Adventist, adamantly against killing any other human being--a point of view that doesn't go down well with the U.S. Army. Doss is eager to serve his country and wants to be a medic, but his sergeant (Vince Vaughn, in a prickly, quietly intense performance) and fellow soldiers, particularly Luke Bracey's Smitty, still come down on him, hard. Doss is nearly court-martialed for standing his ground, but an eleventh-hour near miracle saves him--and if there's anything we know about Gibson, it's that he loves a good miracle.
There are quite a few of those in Hacksaw Ridge, but they're the man-made kind, examples of humans acting with extraordinary courage and conviction. But this picture isn't for the faint of heart. When Doss and his fellow soldiers finally make it to Okinawa, Gibson doesn't soften the horrors they face: he shows us men whose bodies have been torn in two, their entrails dangling like useless fringe, and rats nibbling at the faces of men who have been dead for only a few hours.
Gibson's relentless display of carnage may seem exploitative, but the way he dramatizes the violence of battle puts Doss's actions in sharp perspective. Even after his battalion retreats, Doss keeps pushing forward to drag as many wounded men as possible to safety, lowering them down one by one from a 100-ft. ridge on a rope knotted into a series of dubious-looking loops. The prayer he repeats--"Please, Lord, help me get one more"--doesn't even sound aggressively religious. It's more an incantation, the automatic mantra of a man living desperately in the moment. (It's also the exact prayer that kept the real-life Doss going: the movie's last minutes include footage from an interview with Doss conducted before his death, at 87, in 2006.)
This wouldn't be a Mel Gibson movie without some manner of overt religious imagery, and so we get a shot of a stretcher bearing a wounded man that appears to rise to the sky, like Christ ascending to the heavens. You can accept this moment wholeheartedly or skim over it--it neither mars nor intensifies the story. The same cannot be said when, every so often, Gibson makes a groaner of a choice in how he uses Rupert Gregson-Williams' soppy, string-heavy score: the movie's moments without music are far more effective.
But then, no one expects understatement from Mel Gibson. And if Hacksaw Ridge sometimes veers into overkill territory, at least it bristles with grim vitality. This is the first movie Gibson has directed since the 2006 Apocalypto, and his first since rational people everywhere turned against him for his repeated anti-Semitic ravings. Hacksaw Ridge doesn't absolve him of those. But it's still a movie that reaches out toward the idea of goodness in the world. And whether you or I like Gibson as a person, it's no one's place to deny his reach.