In a classic late 2000’s episode of South Park – Tomorrowland Part 1, Mel Gibson fresh off his most recent Jewish-tirade gives the military a profanity laced description of how basic film plotting works. After interviewing the likes of Michael Bay and M. Night Shyamalan the men staring at a shirtless Gibson twisting his nipples say exasperatedly, “Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the son of a bitch knows story structure.” As usual Trey and Matt hit it on the head. For all of Gibson’s unforgivable faults the man can be a world-class filmmaker. Sure, he often indulges in his worst tendencies, wallowing in grisly violence in place of character development but the bones of basic storytelling are still in place.
The same can be said for Gibson’s unofficial official return to Hollywood, Hacksaw Ridge. The film is the harrowing account of pacifist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) – a boy from rural Virginia who loves the Lord and his country. Gibson’s sure hand leads us through Doss’s upbringing as he deals with his unruly drunk and abusive father Tom (Hugo Weaving,) goofball older brother Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) and loving mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths.) Tom is a veteran of the Great War who’s haunted by it every day. He finds solace in the bottle and no recourse in both his son’s willingness to fight for their country.
His resentment and abuse of their mother inadvertently drives his boys to serve. While Desmond contemplates the magnitude of his decision he meets a local girl named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer.) Desmond isn’t exactly Leonardo DiCaprio but the man knows what he wants and courts Dorothy with an almost hysterical amount of respect. The two are smitten and get engaged before Desmond departs for basic training.
One small caveat about Desmond though – he will not touch a gun. The Doss are Seventh Day Adventists and Desmond is committed to pacifism. He will not take human life, choosing to become a medic. This conviction is admirable but doesn’t exactly sit well with his superiors let alone is colleagues. Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) pushes Doss around and forces his platoon to do extra pt because of his consciences objection. The platoon doesn’t take kindly either, attacking Doss regularly – including a vicious beating in the middle of the night.
Doss overcomes all of this and is deployed to Okinawa to fight the Japanese. Their objective – to take Hacksaw Ridge – a crag of land on the island where the Japanese have dug in. They occupy the high ground with tunnel systems and a relentless fighting style.
When the Doss’s platoon is sent to take Hacksaw they are met with a stunningly bloody battle. Gibson’s war scenes are the most compelling since Saving Private Ryan and incredibly effective in displaying the brutality in the Pacific. Gone are the beautiful green pastures of rural Europe, replaced by the scorched earth of the Japanese islands. Flame throwers, grenades and heavy artillery are deployed leaving nothing but rock and barren soil. It’s amazing anything could grow back.
When the platoon is pushed back by a vicious assault they retreat down the rope ladder set up by the U.S. to safety. But Desmond stays behind, even as the Navy pummels the ridge with artillery fire. One by one he searches the ridge for soldiers who still have a pulse. With each one he slowly lowers them off the ridge for medical attention afterward whispering, “Please Lord, let me find one more.”
It’s obvious what drew Gibson to this material. The man is a devout Catholic and he’s let us all know about it. He’s also always been drawn to stories driven by ideological conviction – as an actor and Director (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, Payback, Signs, The Patriot.) He draws on very similar themes in Hacksaw Ridge. The film sputters under Gibson’s insistence that this is the most earnest man alive (at times it is cringe-inducingly cheesy) but because of that steadfast conviction and the commitment of his actors it mostly works. Gibson’s image may never be rehabilitated (nor in many ways does it deserve to be) but with Hacksaw Ridge he still proves his worth as an artist.