****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****
ESTIMATED READING TIME: 5 Minutes 27 Seconds
My Rating : 1.35 out of 5 stars.
My Recommendation : Skip it.
Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Desmond Doss, a religious conscientious objector in world war two who enlisted in the army and became a medic. Doss served in the Pacific theatre and earned the Medal of Honor for saving scores of his wounded comrades at the battle of Okinawa. The film, directed by Academy Award winner Mel Gibson, stars Andrew Garfield as Doss, with supporting turns by Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey and Vince Vaughn.
Let's cut to the chase, shall we. The story of Desmond Doss is a fantastic story. Hacksaw Ridge is a bad film. I went to the theatre with high expectations for this movie, as the trailer and the background on Doss' story were pretty great. Sadly, Mel Gibson and his cast drop the ball in such a tremendous way that it is stunning how awful this film really is.
The problems with Hacksaw Ridge are numerous, so let's start at the beginning. The casting of this film is flawed right off the bat. The film is a joint Australian/American production, but the cast is almost entirely made up of either Australian or British actors. Aussie and British actors are a fine lot, of that there is certain no doubt, but when you cast them in the role of Americans the cracks start to show. Hugo Weaving is a great example. Weaving is a terrific Aussie actor, but in his role as Doss' father, he stumbles and staggers through the accent and the action like a newbie at the local community theatre. Weaving has one critical monologue and in it his accent goes in and out so often you think you are watching an exorcism. Sam Worthington is another glaring example of the lack of his acting dexterity. Worthington blusters and poses his way through his role and does little more than mimic what he thinks an American accent sounds like. Obviously his ear is as bad as his acting. The accents and language of the foreign actors playing Americans feels so stilted they cause the performances of the cast to ring false throughout. Were there no American actors available for these roles?
The star of the film is Andrew Garfield, a fine British actor. Unlike his cast mates Garfield handles his American/Virginia accent well enough, but he too struggles to be believable in the film. Garfield has the right energy and physique to play Doss, a sort of slight and delicate man, but there are times when I literally though Garfield's Doss seemed mentally handicapped. Garfield made Doss into a dopey, doe-eyed simpleton. I don't know if Garfield did this intentionally or if it is just a habit of his, but he lets his tongue stick out a little bit of his mouth when he is trying to be sincere. It looks like a deformity where his tongue is too big for his mouth. And especially when he has lovey-dovey stars in his eyes with his tongue sticking out, he actually looks mentally disabled. It is bizarre to say the least.
I am not singling out Aussie and British actors alone for their sub-par work in Hacksaw Ridge, as the biggest casting error is unquestionably putting Vince Vaughn in the role of the Sgt. Howell. Vaughn is so mis-cast, and so dreadful in the role that it physically hurt me to watch. I like Vince Vaughn a lot, he is a very talented guy, but he is just so awful as Howell that it beggars belief. Vaughn's biggest problem is that he lacks any sort of gravitas, menace, toughness or vocal prowess to be able to handle what should have been the easiest role to cast. Vaughn also has a minor speech flaw where he swallows his "L's" which makes it difficult for him to project his voice with power. So vocally he is not grounded and instead gets his voice stuck up in his throat and upper chest cavity. This is why he has no gravitas to him in this role which desperately needed it. In comparison think of Lee Ermey in Kubrick's Vietnam masterpiece Full Metal Jacket. Ermey doesn't have to strain his voice to be domineering as his voice is grounded and resonates from deep in his belly (or, more specifically, his balls, if you want to get all Drill Sergeant about it).
The rest of the cast are all the usual war film stereotypes that we have seen a thousand times before. The scene where we are introduced to Doss' squad could have been taken from over a hundred other films about the same war or any other war for that matter. There's the tough guy, the good looking guy, the funny, guy, the dopey guy…you name it. Central casting got a workout filling all of these one dimensional roles. Which leads us to another major issue with Hacksaw Ridge…the script.
As I previously mentioned, Desmond Doss' story is a remarkable and fascinating one. The problem with Hacksaw Ridge is that it sticks Doss' story into the conventional Hollywood War movie cliche machine and mangles it beyond recognition and strips it of all its value. The reason Doss is a conscientious objector is because of his faith. This should have been a film about a man and his faith and his unwavering commitment to that faith. Instead Gibson, no stranger to stories about faith, spends the first half of the film never even mentioning Doss' religious affiliation (Seventh Day Adventist) except in passing and instead makes the film a love story. This love story, in addition to being standard, boring filmmaking fare, ends up being a distraction to Doss' actual story, not the focus of it. In fact the love story basically vanishes in the second half of the film when Doss finds himself in the meat grinder that is Okinawa.
There are references to Doss' religion in the second half of the film, in fact, his religion becomes paramount to understanding why he is doing what he is doing, but since that element of the story hasn't been properly established it lacks any impact on the viewer. It was shocking to me that Mel Gibson, the guy who made half a billion dollars telling the story for The Passion of the Christ, downplayed the religion of his main character, especially when it was so vital to the motivation of that character and the driving force of the entire story.
I was stunned as to how poorly this film was directed, written and acted. The first half of the film is so melodramatic and predictable that it was like watching a tele-novella on Spanish language tv…of course with actors who speak Spanish as a second or third language, instead of native speakers. The second half of the film when the film goes to war, is so unoriginal and cliche-ridden it felt like someone had spliced together second rate scenes from the cutting room floor of every war film made in the last 75 years. There are also flashbacks which do nothing to propel the story further or give any insight into Doss' character or beliefs.
Visually the film is as flat and stale as the storytelling and acting. While the battle scenes have a certain intensity to them, it feels like you are watching someone else play a world war two video game over and over and over again. The fog of war and disarray of battle, mixed with a lack of a clear and specific geography, makes for battle scenes that are a more confusing experience than an exciting one. And Gibson's penchant for swelling music to trigger drama in his film and emotion in his audience, does little to lift the action, but rather makes it all feel manipulative and false.
Mel Gibson is well known for his embrace of violence in his films, and Hacksaw Ridge is no exception to that. There is a lot of human destruction and blood and guts in Hacksaw Ridge but because we have no genuine connection with any of the characters that carnage comes across as gratuitous. I certainly have no issue with extreme violence in a film, that is for sure, but in Hacksaw Ridge the violence is so cinematically dull and visually conventional that the it all rings as hollow as the rest of the film.
I have never been a fan of Mel Gibson as an actor or as a filmmaker. My feelings about Gibson have nothing to do with his troubles a few years back where he got into all sorts of trouble for his personal life and beliefs. I am not judging the artist or his work on the struggles he has had as a man. Personally, I think The Passion of the Christ was very well done and is easily his best film as a director, but the rest of his directing, and acting work for that matter, always has a certain narcissistic, mawkish sensibility to them. As a first generation Scotsman and Irishman, I found his Academy Award winning film Braveheart to be mindless Hollywood shit and a prime example of the previously mentioned narcissistic mawkishness. Hacksaw Ridge is nowhere near the film Braveheart was, but like its Scottish counterpart, Hacksaw Ridge is also very poorly served by Mel Gibson's saccharine vision and maudlin instincts.
In conclusion, my recommendation is to skip Hacksaw Ridge altogether. It certainly isn't worth seeing in the theatre, that is for damn sure. If you really want to see it then I tell you to wait to see it for free on cable of Netflix. It is a shame that a man like Desmond Doss, the type of man we need more of today, wasn't given a better platform from which to spread the word of his heroism and his commitment to his faith. Desmond Doss deserved much better than the dramatically cluttered, conventional and one dimensional film that Mel Gibson has made about him. I went into Hacksaw Ridge filled with anticipation, I left the film profoundly disappointed.