Hacksaw Ridge **1/2

A reasonably good and compelling film about a true hero.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“Hacksaw Ridge” is a polarizing movie. After its screening, I passed by a security guard, who loudly, and to nobody in particular, extolled the film’s virtues. A few steps further, though, I happened upon an angry critic who was castigating the film and its incessant violence. Funny thing is, neither person is wrong. I would invoke the cliché that it’s a love it or hate it type of film, except, I didn’t do either. Iconoclast (i.e. pain in the rear) that I am, my feet are firmly planted in the middle; “Hacksaw Ridge” is neither great nor is it abhorrent.

Directed by Mel Gibson, the film recounts the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. It’s basically three movies rolled into one. The first follows Desmond from childhood to a young adult, explaining, in part, his turn to pacifism. It also moonlights as a romance, devoting time to his courtship and engagement to Dorothy (Theresa Palmer), a local nurse. The second part portrays his time in basic training and the hardships he faced from both his fellow trainees and upper command (Vince Vaughan and Sam Worthington). Finally, the third section is the actual war portion with Desmond on the battlefront in Okinawa.

Everything in “Hacksaw Ridge” is writ large from the acting to the dialogue to the presentation. Accents (Brooklyn, Southern, etc.) are over-pronounced and the dialogue (screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan) consists almost solely of declarations. Hearing things like “I figure while everyone is taking lives, I’ll be saving them!” is not uncommon. The musical and visual cues also leave nothing to the imagination. They tell you how when and how to feel with a swollen orchestral score and an almost abusive relationship with slow-motion.

Understatement is simply not the movie’s forte. That’s fine, I guess, because that’s what the filmmakers are going for. If there is a problem, it’s that the cinematography and the special effects don’t back up the grandness of the rest of the film. The visuals are washed out and just feel a little cheap. Early in the movie, a point of view shot is supposed to reveal a beautiful vista, but instead we’re treated to an odd, grainy, and misframed stock image of a waterfall. And the computer-assisted special effects throughout, mostly the backgrounds, are also less than convincing.

Though the story is straight forward, “Hacksaw” subverts a few expectations. Clichés aren’t turned on their head so much as they are turned on their side. Two characters especially benefit from this, Vince Vaughan’s Sergeant Howell and Luke Bracey’s Smitty, a fellow private. They could simply have been de facto villains and are sort of set up that way, initially making Desmond’s life miserable. Happily, both are given just enough depth to make their motivations understandable and Smitty, especially, is allowed to develop a relationship to the protagonist as something other than an antagonist. It also helps that both Vaughan and Bracey give likable performances that go against type. Vaughan isn’t a lovable rascal for once, and Bracey isn’t driftwood.

The battle scenes are ferocious, convincing, and graphic, oh so graphic (though, coming from Mel Gibson, who directed “Braveheart,” this isn’t surprising). They are also exciting, but they made me feel a little guilty and uncomfortable after a while; I got the feeling that Gibson wasn’t just trying to depict the realities of war so much as he was wallowing in the violence. That’s a problem for a movie based on true events where many lives were violently lost.

But at least the centerpiece, and best part, of the film is a little different from what we usually see in a war movie, and it gives a break from all of the carnage. Rather than just watching people torn apart by gunfire, we see Desmond save people instead, including enemy soldiers. These scenes are as exciting as the hardcore action from earlier, and the humanitarian edge is a thing of beauty. There is a lesson in this. You don’t need unrelenting violence to be exciting.

In the end, “Hacksaw Ridge” is what I call an “On The Other Hand” movie. Every time it did something badly, it would do something good and vice versa. It basically leaves you saying, “On the other hand…” As such, it’s not great and it’s not terrible. It’s pretty good, and it portrays a fascinating and humane person who proved that altruism does exist, even on a battlefield. If you can stomach the violence and the neutron star level heavy handedness, it is worth a look.

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