It should not come as too much as a surprise that Hacksaw Ridge, which garnered 6 Oscar nominations and won two, tells the story of a man of extreme religious conviction, testing that belief to its limits before performing miraculous feats to help the unworthy. It is, after all, the film which appears to have allowed its director Mel Gibson to rejoin polite Hollywood society, an acknowledged anti-Semite, domestic abuser and at least sometime racist. He loves a bit of suffering, does our Mel.
Andrew Garfield gamely plays Desmond Doss, a young man with a now-distant history of violent outbursts who has embraced Christianity with fervour, and with an additional personal twist which rears its head when enlists to join the Army. Desmond has sworn to himself and his lord that he will not lay hands upon a weapon. After a predictable dispute with his commanders, and a trailer-bait hearing, he is allowed to join the front. The film spends its first half following Desmond from his youth to this point, tracing the development of his gentle nature and watching him take his first romantic steps, opposite Teresa Palmer.
These scenes, as sweet as they are, feel conventional to the extreme, and this course is maintained even through the supposedly horrendous training endured by Private Doss, as he becomes known to us. Vince Vaughn keeps a straight face as the requisite furious Sergeant, and isn’t required to add much nuance at any point. The narrative arcs are predictable, the stereotypes easy and the payoffs correspondingly lacklustre. However, this all acts as a prelude to the film’s brutal focus, the taking of the titular Hacksaw Ridge, held by the Japanese near Okinawa.
After a climb up a net ladder hugging a sheer cliff-face, the company mounts waves of attacks against the enemy, with moments of calm in between. Here Gibson seems in his vile element – comrades briefly characterised are immediately and violently eviscerated by crossfire, explosions and flame. We lose track of the waifish Garfield for minutes at a time, as the spectacle becomes concerned with the sheer horror of battle in this modern arena. The violence is brutal, the wounds shocking, and Private Doss’s large eyes play witness to much of it in clear shell-shock.
Despite what he sees and endures, our hero’s religiosity is continually emphasised, to varying degrees of subtlety (clouds with sunrays bursting through? No thanks. A request for a sign answered only by the piercing cries of the wounded? Okay.) This starts to feel fetishistic from Gibson at a certain point, especially in light of his other work, but Garfield brings an undeniable likeability to Doss that does shine through the grime.
Doss’s story is truly astonishing, and clearly worth telling. He was a man of enormous bravery and genuine sensitivity, and bears celebrating. This film does an able job of presenting that story, and in facing the gravity of his ordeal without a flinch. However, its conventional structure, traditional pacing and ordinary script leave it loitering in the realm of the mundane, quite unlike the saintly Doss himself.