By Jack Dignan
It takes a lot to win a war. I don't have any sort of experience with wars, nor do I intend to, but I certainly imagine it takes a lot to win one. It takes bravery, passion and a journey through hell and back, and most of the time, it doesn't seem pretty. With most war movies, it's usually about wining the war or rescuing someone or completing a certain objective. It's about survival, and standing up when all the odds are against you, and in a way, the same goes for Hacksaw Ridge, but this is a very different type of war film. This isn't a story about shooting your way to victory. It's the story of an ordinary man who became a war hero without even firing a single bullet, and that's no easy accomplishment.
We follow the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a young man who grew up in a religious household with an alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving). One day, Desmond comes across a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), who he instantly falls in love with, but their love is forced to be put on a halt when Desmond decides to go to war, following in the footsteps of the soldiers who came before him, including his father and brother Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic). When training under the command of Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), it becomes rather apparent that Desmond is unlike the other soldiers. While he wants to fight in this war, he refuses to pick up a gun, making him an unfavourable member in his squadron. But still, he's sent off to battle, and his act of bravery is an astounding one to watch unfold.
Brutal, brilliant and emotional, Hacksaw Ridge is a war film to remember, and it's certainly going to grab the attention of Oscar voters in the coming months. It tells a tale of faith, courage and following your beliefs, but it does so without shoving religious views down your throat. It's a film about religion, but it isn't forcing you to be religious. In fact, it does quite the opposite, encouraging you to believe in what you think is right, and not to let anyone tell you otherwise. It's important, inspiring and worthy of applause, and I was on the brink of tears for pretty much the entire runtime.
It takes its time setting everything up, but it needs to. It needs this time, and it uses it wisely. While the main portion of the movie takes place on the battlefield, the events before that are just as needed, not only as an introduction to this character, but to aid in the message this film gives. It's a biopic that avoids being a biopic, only really having two scenes that serve as flashbacks, and the rest of the film being told to us in realtime. It creates an attachment to the character of Desmond, as well as strong empathy, and when he does make it to the war, my heart was racing in anticipation, just hoping for the best for this character.
It's these early training sequences that are both fascinating, yet clichéd. It covers just about everything you'd expect to be in war training, ticking off the box for every single convention, and perhaps that's the way it is in real life, but in terms of movies, we've seen it all before. However, writers Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, who did a powerful and superb job with the screenplay, add an interesting dynamic to these early scenes. The premise of each of them has been done to death, but the character of Desmond is so fascinating and unique that they do, oddly enough, feel significantly different to the ones we've seen before.
Here, we also get a good sense of who these characters are, or at least who they seem to be. Their personalities shine through, and while a bunch of them are walking clichés, such as Luke Bracey's Smitty (although once we get to the war scenes, these clichés go away somewhat, replaced by an actual character) or Luke Pegler's Hollywood, there are a few characters who I really enjoyed watching. One of these would be Vince Vaughn's relentless sergeant, as well as Sam Worthington's Captain Glover, who just wants the best for his men. While Vaughn did an excellent job, once again starting to prove talented as a dramatic actor after his impressive appearance in True Detective Season 2, I was a big fan of what Worthington brought to his role.
Backed by a powerful score by Rupert Greyson-Williams (which is hilarious considering this guy also scored such masterpieces as Bee Movie and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2), the war sequences are horrific and painfully realistic, and director Mel Gibson handles them in an almost beautiful way. They're brutal and gruesome, yet impossible to turn away from. Once the battle begun, my eyes were locked, refusing to move, for the sheer terror of the whole situation drew me right in. The last battle in particular feels extremely well crafted, and there's moments where the score, performances, cinematography and visuals all just slotted together perfectly to make for a moment of pure cinematic delight.
This is without a doubt Andrew Garfield's best performance yet, taking this film to a whole other level. Whether he's awkwardly trying to flirt with Teresa Palmer, who's also impressive here, or saving dozens upon dozens of lives on the battlefield, Garfield gives it his all, much like his character does, and the result is something extraordinary. I am a very big fan of The Social Network, having seen it countless times, and that used to be my favourite Garfield performance, but Hacksaw Ridge just came along and changed that, for he is at the absolute top of his game here. There's a flashback scene involving him and the iconic Hugo Weaving that, while brief, completely blew me away in terms of performances.
To sum up, Hacksaw Ridge does dwell with a few familiarities here and there, but in the long run, everything in this film is most certainly needed, and it results in a powerful, brutal and moving tale of heroism, anti-violence and standing up for what you believe in, and the entire cast just shines. If you miss out on this one, you're making a huge mistake.
4 1/2 Stars