Saturday, 4 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge


It only seems like a few weeks ago I was sat in the cinema watching Andrew Garfield in another role in which he plays a man outcast from those around him, shrouded in religious iconography with people dying around him. Oh, wait. Maybe that's because it is only a few weeks ago I was sat in the cinema watching Andrew Garfield in another role in which he plays a man outcast from those around him, shrouded in religious iconography with people dying around him. Martin Scorsese's Silence released just last month, so it's safe to say that Garfield has had a pretty incredible start to 2017. Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson's first directorial effort since 2006's Apocalypto, and by the looks of this it hasn't taken him long to get readjusted at all.

Based on a breathtaking true story, Hacksaw Ridge feels destined for something powerful right from the get go. Desmond Doss (Garfield), after proposing to his girlfriend (Teresa Palmer), leaves his hometown to enlist in the Army in the second World War. He identifies as a conscientious objector due to his religious beliefs, but signs up nonetheless as he feels he would be ashamed of himself if he didn't. He enters the training programme with the intention of serving as a combat medic, and intends to do so without ever firing a gun - even in the battlefield.

So it's a very different story to Scorsese's Silence, and yet both films find Garfield playing characters defined by their religious beliefs. As a film in itself, Hacksaw Ridge has much more going for it - it's undeniably more thrilling, and it features some of the most effective editing work of the year - but it's tough to find many ways that Gibson's film outshines Scorsese's in the way it handles religion. Religious iconography is mostly lacking in Hacksaw Ridge, and the film instead bypasses subtext and settles for Doss simply clinging onto a bible for most of the film. Later on, as he showers to rinse the blood from his body, the baptism connotations are so overwhelming that the shot almost becomes humorous.

But maybe this is Gibson's intention. For subtext to work it must be handled delicately, and war is not a delicate subject. War is brutal and bloody and messy, and that's exactly how Gibson depicts it here. When people are shot their faces rip open, their legs fly off and leave bloodied flesh all over the body-stricken battlefield. We need the horror of war to land in order for Doss' beliefs to have an impact, and Gibson isn't afraid to push the level of violence here to extreme levels. There are moments where even the toughest of cinemagoers will be forced to look away.

The first battle sequence is deliriously intense and the film, rather admirably, never tries to top it. Hacksaw Ridge is effectively split into two halves - we begin with the calm and slow journey of Doss from schoolboy all the way through to his Army training and court case, the first battle doesn't take place until well over an hour into the film. This first half is lacking an energy and emotion of sorts, the film's script is too keen on selling Doss as a smitten and lovely guy that a lot of the complexity in his relationship with his family is lost. It rarely drags, which is respectable for a film of nearly two and a half hours, but the opening half always feels like it's searching for something great but can't quite find it.

Ultimately, it finds that greatness in the back half of the film. This is where Gibson's directorial efforts start to shine and Garfield can truly excel. He gives a superb performance here, expertly conveying a sense of calmness within the battlefield but ramping up the fear when a gun is pointed to his head for the first time. The performances all round are good, especially Vince Vaughn who excels in a role that is seemingly written for anyone but him, yet no one here can detract from the strength of Garfield's portrayal of Doss.

By ramping up the bloodshed and the violence in the second half, Gibson gives himself a bigger canvas to play with. The battlefield is shrouded in fog, meaning bullets fly from nowhere and shatter rocks and bodes in equal measure. He even finds time for smaller set pieces within the bigger picture; there's a horror infused scene as Doss makes his way through a Japanese tunnel system under the battlefield, and Gibson lands on something brilliantly tense as Doss and another U.S soldier are forced to imitate dead bodies while the Japanese soldiers walk through the battlefield in a search for life. Hacksaw Ridge's second half is driven by action, but Gibson's inclusion of other genres helps to stop the film from slipping into one-note territory. It always feels more than a standard war thriller.

Hacksaw Ridge is a film made up of terrific elements pieced together masterfully, it's just a shame the religious themes never find a smooth way of combining with everything else here. Again, it's entirely possible to justify this - is war a place for religion? Should religion and war really be depicted evenly within the same scene? You could easily argue not, but then Gibson includes the sequence of Doss repeatedly praying for one more life to save every time he rescues a solider. It puts Hacksaw Ridge into a thematically awkward place, but the rest of the film is so astonishingly crafted that you don't get a second to really consider thematic control while you're watching it. No, you'll be far too busy jumping out of your skin with your jaw hanging wide open and your hands holding on to the cinema seat armrests so tightly that they could snap clean off.

To Summarise: Under the confident work of director Mel Gibson and star Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge is elevated from a standard action-thriller into a powerful and numbingly intense piece of war cinema.

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