He’s baaaaaaaaaaaaack! That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. America’s sweetheart Mel Gibson is back behind the camera after a decade long hiatus and he’s better than ever. After his drunken tirade in 2006 caused his stardom to spiral downward, we all thought we had seen the end of ol’ Mel. Yeah, he’s had some roles in smaller films here and there, but as a serious filmmaker and movie star, it seemed like his days were over. Now in 2016, scoring the lead role in the allegedly excellent Blood Father, his new film Hacksaw Ridge, and starting pre-production on the Passion of the Christ sequel, it seems that he’s due for a big comeback. I couldn’t be more excited.

Taking place during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, Hacksaw Ridge follows well meaning Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector to the war due to his devout religious beliefs. After his brother and every other man around him enlists to fight, he can’t stand not making a sacrifice, and enlists in the Army to become a medic. Although abused and ridiculed for refusing to carry a weapon into battle, he still rose above all and proved to his brothers in arms that he was a true soldier and hero.

I’m not one to conflate a artist’s personal life with their artistic merit. You can be the craziest, most genocide thirsty freak out there, but a great film is a great film. I’m not saying Mel is like that at all. I just don’t think it’s fair to let it influence your opinion of the film. Of course filmmakers will inject their more personal feelings into their art, to varying degrees of subtlety and integrity. While themes of piousness and righteousness are prevalent throughout Hacksaw Ridge, they accurately represent the conviction of the main character and overall point of the story. It never comes off as preachy. I’m not a religious man, but seeing Andrew Garfield tearfully pray to God, begging him “to just let him get one more,” nearly brought tears to my eyes. It’s a true sign of strong filmmaking when you completely empathize with the character, almost to the point in believing it yourself. Andrew Garfield has this endearingly optimistic demeanor that wonderfully captures the humbleness. He makes a lot of naturally goofy facial expressions, really selling the whole Southern hospitality attitude of Doss, proving once again that he’s one of the most genuine actors around. You’re rooting for him every step of the way.

We follow Doss from the time he is a boy growing up in Virginia, all the way up until The Battle of Okinawa. Throughout his journey we meet a colorful cast of characters, such as the always lovely Teresa Palmer portraying his wife, Vince Vaughn as a loud and humorously obnoxious drill sergeant (the funniest he’s been in years), and Hugo Weaving as Doss’ emotionally damaged, but ultimately good hearted father. Oh yeah, and Sam Worthington shows up, too. I feel like I’ve haven’t seen him in anything since 2010. All of these actors are great in their respective roles, but it’s odd that most of their characters are very well built up, and then practically vanish during the second half. Sure, they were placeholder roles to begin with. Worried wife, belligerent father, strict drill sergeant, but the actors all injected a certain humanity into their performances that gave them a little depth. The fact that Doss’ wife and father never appear again once we go to Okinawa, makes their characters seem even more underwritten and cliché. I would have gladly taken an extra ten minutes of screentime in order to have some more scenes with his loved ones at the end.

Once we cross the pacific and find ourselves in the Land of the Rising Sun, is where Gibson shows what he’s truly all about. While the man expertly captures character drama, sometimes a tad melodramatically, it’s when Gibson gets to the gruesome violence and carnage where his emotions really come to head. The second half of the film is absolutely relentless. Once our soldiers first ascend the titular ridge, it’s nothing by a non-stop barrage of bullets, explosions, and bloody entrails. Very reminiscent of the iconic D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan, Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the appalling violence and chaos of warfare. Men crawl around with their legs reduced to mush, all while their brethren get picked off one by one, by sudden explosions, or shots to the head. It’s nothing short of absolutely visceral. You never feel relaxed during the second half of the film. Characters will sit and talk, then an explosion happens and we’re onto another bloody battle. Tensions are always high.

Gibson perfectly captures that although you’re faced by insurmountable odds, finding that silver lining in your situation can get you through it. While I was riveted by Doss’ journey and his inspiring conviction to save as many people as possible, I was taken aback by the blood and gore at the same time. It’s this juxtaposition between the best and worst of humanity that brings this story together. No matter how much horror he saw or endured, or how much abuse he took, he never wavered, even when things looked grim. He never sacrificed his morals in order for the greater good. You could really feel the pain everybody was going through. It’s amazing that a director like Quentin Tarantino can make an exploding head hilarious, but Gibson makes it horrifying. One of the many wonderful things about art.

At its surface, Hacksaw Ridge is a harrowing tale of courage and perseverance, but at its core, it’s much, much more. Doss knew he never had to sacrifice his morals or beliefs in order to achieve the greater good. He kept to them to achieve that instead. Hacksaw Ridge is a truly inspiring film. It challenges you to come to terms with how we use violence to achieve peace, and whether it’s truly necessary. It wants you to remember all of those brave men who gave their lives in horrible ways for our freedom. It inspires you to look at yourself, others, and what you could do to make the world an overall better place. The best films are the ones that are talked about decades down the line, never losing their impact. I believe Hacksaw Ridge is one of those films.


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