HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Prolonged Realistically Graphic Sequences of War Violence including Grisly Bloody Images

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Directed by: Mel Gibson

Written by: Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkkan

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh & Luke Pegler

World War II was a horrible time in human history that contained many fascinating true stories. One of these stories is that of Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector to ever receive the Medal of Honor during WWII. Working off a well-crafted script from Andrew Knight (who previously wrote 2015’s substandard WWI drama THE WATER DIVINER) and Robert Schenkkan, director Mel Gibson delivers a triumphant movie about unbelievable courage, inner strength and the horrors of war. Like many WWII films, HACKSAW RIDGE isn’t exactly the most pleasant movie of the year as there are harrowing moments of carnage and scenes of breathless tension. For those who want to see a rousing story of an unlikely hero, HACKSAW RIDGE is one hell of an emotional ride.

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Raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a deeply religious man who finds himself tested by the arrival of World War II. Despite seeing what the horrors of World War I did to his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving), Desmond can’t sit idly by while others are fighting the war for him. To the dismay of his loving fiancé Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), Desmond volunteers to fight in World War II…but there’s just one stipulation. He refuses to touch a weapon. This puts Desmond in a tough spot with his superiors and in greater danger on the shores of “Hacksaw Ridge” during the Battle of Okinawa. Instead of taking life, Desmond Doss intends on saving it.

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HACKSAW RIDGE is split into two distinct halves. The first half focuses on Desmond’s home life, the events that drove him to enlist, his deeply held religious beliefs, and the turbulence he encounters at boot camp for his pacifist stance on the war. The second half is where the Battle of Okinawa comes into play and we actually see Doss at work in some of the most heroic acts that have come from one extraordinary human being. The first half allows the viewer to get to know the characters and presents a layout of the story, so we totally sympathize from where Doss is coming from.

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The slower first portion was a smart move, because it also causes the audience to let their guard down and makes the violent second half that much more shocking. Soldiers we’ve followed through boot camp are killed in mere seconds, whilst we root for Doss to save as many as he possibly can. The Battle of Okinawa sequences are gory, intense and assault the viewer’s sensibilities. Those three qualities are absolutely called for in a film about World War II. Okinawa was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War and Mel Gibson does his damndest to capture the sheer terror of it all. Lots of smoke obscures figures in the distance, causing many threats to go unseen. The Japanese kamikaze tactics are shown in shocking fashion. The battle scenes don’t shy away from severed limbs, rat-eaten corpses, and graphic wounds. The details are appropriately horrific and make Doss’s courageous acts of bravery seem even more heroic in comparison.

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In the role of Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield delivers his finest performance yet. I mostly know him as Peter Parker in the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies, but Garfield disappears in the role of good-hearted Southern boy Doss. He slips right into the part and I completely forgot that I was watching a performance until the end credits rolled…and we’re treated to actual footage of the real Doss. Vince Vaughn gets lots of laughs and great scenes as Doss’s strict drill sergeant. His performance reminded me of a less-harsh R. Lee Ermey. Sam Worthington is mostly regulated to the sidelines as frustrated and undermanned Captain Glover, but receives a couple of powerful moments in the final third. Luke Bracey is well-cast as a soldier who understandably opposes Doss’s “cowardly” ways, Teresa Palmer is great as Doss’s understanding fiancé, and Hugo Weaving is outstanding as Doss’s abusive father.

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Taken purely on a technical level, Mel Gibson has crafted one hell of a war film. The battle sequences look realistic, pack serious tension into the bloody chaos (to the point where I was on the edge of my seat multiple times), and seem massive in scope. Detailed cinematography adds a beautiful look to the proceedings, while intricately layered sound design adds a believable sense of confusion to the combat scenes. If I have any complaints they come from an out-of-place dream sequence and the sudden ending. I expected this film to run longer than it actually did, but that gripe might be taken as a positive for how amazing and compelling this movie’s quality is. I wanted it keep going beyond the end credits.

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HACKSAW RIDGE is a compelling, deeply emotional war movie. The performances are stellar across the board, with Andrew Garfield disappearing into the role of a real-life heroic character. The story’s two-act structure ultimately makes the entire film feel more realistic and moving. The combat sequences are rough and horrific, as they should be. The film also looks and sounds amazing on a technical level. With his fifth feature, Mel Gibson has brought cinematic life to an incredible true story that’s bound to move even the hardest of hearts. If you’re into history, war films or just great cinema, HACKSAW RIDGE is must-see!

Grade: A

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