Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a film at war with itself. Which makes perfect sense, because it’s about a man at war with himself, and I’m pretty sure it was also made by a man at war with himself. The true-life story of Desmond Doss — a Seventh Day Adventist whose religious beliefs prevented him from carrying a gun but who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions as a medic during the WWII battle for Okinawa — seems ready-made for Gibson, a director whose obsession with both piety and gore runs deep. In previous films, these impulses were either kept somewhat separate (as in the action epics Braveheart and Apocalypto) or worked in tandem (as in the blood-soaked The Passion of the Christ). In Hacksaw Ridge they collide, and the results are often beautiful, occasionally infuriating, and always fascinating.
As played by Andrew Garfield, Doss is a pleasant, sheltered young man raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, one whose faith is both an environmental given and a personal lifeline. After nearly killing his brother with a brick as a child, Desmond is drawn — almost as if by hypnosis — to a religious poster on his family’s wall. Pacifism, the rejection of any and all violence, becomes his personal salvation. Add to that the demons from the first World War that still torment his drunk, abusive father (Hugo Weaving), and you’d think Desmond would be the last person in the world to enlist when the second war comes along.
But enlist he does, and he undergoes Army training with a cast of characters straight out of an old-fashioned war movie: a mouthy Italian from New York, a Texan who does tricks with his lasso, a handsome narcissist nicknamed “Hollywood,” the works. Despite his scrawny frame, Doss aces all his training, save for the riflery part: Claiming to be a conscientious objector, he refuses even to pick up a gun, much to the bewilderment and fury of his company’s hard-ass drill sergeant (a very good Vince Vaughn, delivering the de rigueur shit-kickery with an above-it-all nonchalance) and their practical-minded captain (Sam Worthington). Doss wants to be a non-combatant medic — “I figure I’ll be saving people, not killing them,” he says — but his refusal to even touch a gun gets him first mocked, then beaten, and finally court-martialed.
But that's largely an extended prologue for the harrowing experiences of Doss and his company at Okinawa, where they attempt to take the seemingly unconquerable (and appropriately named) ridge of the film’s title. This is where, suddenly, the quaint, almost insistently idealized filmmaking of the first part starts to make sense — as any and all illusions about heroism and combat get ripped to shreds like our heroes’ bodies. Gibson has never had a good-taste filter when it comes to violence; that makes him crude at times, but it can also make him truly dangerous as a filmmaker. Some of the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are seizure-inducingly intense. Pieces of human fly every which way; heads and torsos explode with almost casual abandon. Gibson wants to rub our faces in the gruesomeness of combat; then he wants to rip our faces off and rub them in it some more.
But there is purpose here. We get no exhilaration from all this carnage. Gibson has taken the formula of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and turned it on its head; in that film, the graphic, shocking horror of D-Day came right at the beginning so that the trauma haunted the rest of the story, informing all character interactions. Gibson makes us wait for the horror — building to it like a showman, but then revealing something far worse than anything we’d imagined, effectively poisoning his own spectacle. And that spectacle highlights Doss’ achievement.
As the bodies are strewn across the battlefield — the gut-shot corpses and headless torsos covered in vermin as soon as the shooting stops — it seems downright superhuman that this lone man would go around daring to try and save the seemingly unsavable, even some of the opposing Japanese. The carnage also bears out Doss’ own pacifism. Late in the battle, as he’s pinned in a foxhole with a fellow soldier, the other man points to a rifle lying on the ground, as if to reassure him: “Rifle’s just here. It won’t bite,” he tells Doss. “Yes, it will,” is the reply. “Just look around you.”
But this is Mel Gibson we’re talking about here — a complicated man, if nothing else. And so, something strange happens in the film’s closing section: Its vision of violence seems to change. The finale involves Doss’ company finally taking Hacksaw Ridge in a kind of glorious, stylized combat free-for-all that sees the enemy getting mowed down with obscene elegance. It’s all very over the top, and at first seems like Gibson has betrayed the very ethos of his own film.
But look closer: In his loving, slo-mo close-ups of guns and bullets and bodies being burnt to a crisp, Gibson consciously leans into the paradox, the hypocrisy: He dares to ennoble the very weaponry and violence his ostensibly honorable hero has fought against. In any other war epic, these final scenes would play as triumphant, but because of what we’ve already seen, we watch them with a feeling bordering on disgust. As a filmmaker, Gibson understands that there is something fundamentally irreconcilable about Doss’ love of peace, his abject and visceral revulsion at battle and a war movie’s embrace of violence. Somehow, the director has made a film that can contain that contradiction — that remains irreducible. He breaks his own movie, and somehow the movie is better for it.