Hacksaw Ridge (2017) (Review)

Hacksaw Ridge became one of this most awarded films of the award season earlier this week, scoring a total of six Oscar nominations, including nods in Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. Based on the incredible true story, the film details one conscientious objector's journey throughout the Second World War where he refused to lift a gun. His courageous story unfolds in this 137 minute cinematic cyclone of blood and gore, and love and faith. Brought to us by director Mel Gibson, with the central role of the pacifist played by award-nominee Andrew Garfield, does this anti-war film live up to the expectations? And more importantly, does it pay respect to the courageous man's story?

Due to his feverous religious beliefs as a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss (Garfield) intends to serve in the Second World War as a combat medic. His refusal to carry a gun earns him the fury of his regiments, who put this down to cowardice rather than his piety, outcasting and subjecting him to their abuse as his fellow soldiers cannot look to him to save them in the line of fire. After multiple attempts to have him forcibly removed from the unit fails, Doss must prove his strength and bravery on the battlefield, in the most deathly of circumstances, as the soldiers look to take 'Hacksaw Ridge' in the Battle of Okinawa.

Hacksaw Ridge is not an easy watch and most certainly not for the fainthearted; but you appreciate it all the more for not pulling its emotional punches. It includes some of the most brutal and ferocious battle scenes featured on screen in years, with the blood, guts and gore never restrained or moderate in demonstration, yet (surely) only capturing a fraction of the absolute horror of war of which we will likely never encounter ourselves. It's heart-racing, thunderous and sickeningly intense, throwing audiences right into the line of fire along with these characters in the only way we can really experience such destruction. It is unbelievably well-crafted and made, with a real determination to do right by the real-life story, delivering it with historical accuracy thanks to writing from Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Mel Gibson, while as heavy as ever with his use of violence and destruction akin to that of war, never forgets to percolate the rich and powerful themes of religion, faith, patriotism, forgiveness and humanity. It's psychologically devastating but the whole thing is captured in a way that refuses to allow the human story to fade into the background, as even in the sheer bloodlust and frenzy of the picture, it is the characters that shine the brightest - one, of course, in particular.

Andrew Garfield is simply mesmerising as Desmond Doss in the best performance of his career to date. There remains a sturdy composure to his character, even in the many faces of adversary (from death on the Ridge to his abuse from his fellow soldiers). Defined and fuelled by a real innocence and humility of the character who always aligns his faith with his actions, Garfield portrays these characteristics and moral tension at the heart of the piece with a emotive, pitch-perfect performance that excellently nails the mannerism (accent and all) of the hero. His sheer force of will to save "just one more" is deftly portrayed as nothing short of inspiring with Garfield and Gibson in the driving seat and his slow-motion runs across Hacksaw can impact the hardest of hearts. The entire sequence of the battle, which takes up much of the second half of the film, is completely absorbing and compelling, mainly due to the warmth and humbleness of Garfield's visceral performance and the true life figure himself. Garfield earns his Best Actor nomination here and, if truth be told, I am backing him every step of the way. As with his work in Silence, it proves why he remains one of the most skilful, talented British stars and it is a relief to see him break out into these roles he handles so masterfully. Some supporting actors get a look in too, with the likes of Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey and Teresa Palmer giving solid performances, and although they are not quite in the same league as Garfield, all add what is necessary of their characters to the film.

It's not always worth spending a long time on the downfalls of the film, and with Hacksaw Ridge there are few, but they do prevent this from being a flaw-free picture. The tonal difference between the two halves of this film (the corny but serviceable Homefront and the calamitous battle) is staggering and a little overwhelming; it really jumps from one extreme to the other and while you could justify this as a reflection of the young soldiers being thrown in battle with such little preparation, as a viewer you almost want to see a more spaced-out build-up. I am so very on the fences about the pacing and structure of this piece but something doesn't quite work with it, although I understand the symbolism of the decision. Speaking of symbolism, the religious qualities feel a little on-the-nose at times and the very beginning scene feels ham-fisted beyond belief, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise intensely powerful and inspiring story. Oh, and can we please stop using in medias res Hollywood - it genuinely ruins the impact of the film's ending and feels entirely unnecessary. I'd go as far as arguing the film loses half a star for using during the opening seconds.

Hacksaw Ridge paints a powerful portrait of the importance of faith and basic respect for one and other, with an emotional and moving tale of a man who refused to lift a gun, making the decision to save lives rather than take them. It is a tough balancing act, but the film remains deeply effective and gripping, as well as violent but dignified at the same time, all of which coalesces into a worthwhile experience. For all its blood, gore, explosions and injury detail, it never forgets the human story it is telling and guarantees that the themes are always front and centre of the picture. Andrew Garfield delivers a career-best performance and Mel Gibson crafts this harrowing and violent tale with enough thought-provoking and moral questioning to ensure you are totally engrossed in this pacifists' story. Each and every one of us can find inspiration in this one man's adherence to his true morals and beliefs and in turn will find the true meaning of strength and bravery in the darkest of circumstances in this film.


Summary: Hacksaw Ridge is a powerful, emotionally-charged and inspiring picture that examines the full horror of war on both an intimate and wider scale - all topped off with a mesmerising performance from Andrew Garfield.

Highlight: Garfield's performance of a man determined to save as many people as possible. "Just one more" stays with you long after the credits role and he will likely become a source of inspiration for many, many people.