Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a story of devotion and sacrifice distracted by stretches of visceral explosions and grisly bloodletting. In other words, it’s a film better-suited to Gibson’s proven taste for gnarly, populist piety than the likes of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. In relating the story of WWII army corporal and combat medic Desmond Doss, the first “conscientious objector” to earn a Medal of Honor, Gibson takes evident pleasure in flouting the seeming contradictions at the heart of the material, delivering a fetishistically violent film that also happens to be a biopic about a Seventh-day Adventist who saved dozens of lives while refusing to touch a weapon.
The film’s balletic opening battle scene—a small pageant of falling bodies, flamethrowers, and grenade blasts—is an amuse-bouche for the carnage to come, but even when Hacksaw Ridge retreats to the pre-war idyll of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1929, blood and violence are still integral to the drama. Desmond is startled into his breed of solitary nonviolence as a child (played by Darcy Bryce), when a bit of roughhousing with brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) nearly turns deadly. After the incident, Desmond stares at a poster listing the Ten Commandments, dwelling on the sixth one as he overhears his aggrieved alcoholic father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), and tremulous mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), fight through the night.
Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t scrutinize these formative scars, but in the film’s defense, it doesn’t appear that Desmond does either. Portrayed as an adult by Andrew Garfield with an on-brand sincerity and a guilelessness that verges on Gumpian, Desmond spends each of the film’s three acts pursuing and achieving an explicit goal with unwavering faith in his ultimate success. This is a work of defiantly simplistic, classically structured Hollywood storytelling, and Gibson takes to its hokey plot points with some gusto, quickly ushering Desmond from his successful wooing of kind and uncomplicated nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) to a stint in basic training, where Vince Vaughn tries mightily to reinvigorate the trope of the drill sergeant as insult comic.
Eventually, Desmond’s religious beliefs stoke dissension among his peers, not to mention a wealth of bureaucratic confusion. The private won’t work on Saturday (his Sabbath), and his refusal to bear arms means he can’t properly complete basic training. Military hearings and a string of beatings by fellow soldiers ensue, and while Desmond ultimately makes it to the Pacific front as a combat medic, the film’s screenplay never satisfactorily explains why Desmond feels called to join the fight in the first place.
Desmond is committed to nonviolence, but it seems wrong to call him a pacifist, as he suffers no compunctions about being thrust into one of the bloodiest American operations of World War II. Gibson seizes on this irony without ever making an attempt to make sense of it. As such, the film’s foray into moral anguish and courtroom drama is repetitive and willfully superficial. Desmond is taunted by soldiers and army brass asking him, “What’re you gonna do, hit ’em with your Bible?” while Desmond finds innumerable ways to reassert both the fact of his faith and the depths of his patriotism. There’s no questioning whether or not those tenets are compatible.
Though Hacksaw Ridge feels fundamentally disingenuous, Gibson takes full advantage of Desmond’s highly individualistic worldview, exploiting the character’s naif-like simplicity to deliver action that’s at once gross, rousingly virtuosic, and implicitly endorsed by its messianistic hero. Desmond’s acts of bravery take place in the thick of a Boschian hellscape: He never flinches at the heaps of intestines or the twirling, immolated soldiers that surround him, nor does he falter in his fervor to save every possible life. The film’s Japanese enemies are little more than savage others, visually analogous to the swarms of rats we see feasting on corpses. Desmond saves a few injured Japanese soldiers, but he briefly gets to play the ass-kicker too, swatting away grenades with a hand and a foot in one single shot. Most of his heroics, though, are depicted with stoicism and a wealth of religious iconography.
The eponymous 350-foot high ridge itself is a resonant image of Desmond’s ascension, and Gibson finds more opportunities to place him in baptismal and Christ-like poses. It’s all deeply silly and occasionally risible, but it’s also undeniably canny, a throwback entertainment that somehow successfully integrates a lofty sense of piety with an unyielding taste for bloodlust.