By Christian DiMartino
All hail the return of Mel Gibson.
Some ten years ago, as we all know, Gibson faced some public scrutiny for making horrible, racist comments towards the Jewish police officer arresting him. Following that some years later, there is also footage of him saying insane things to his ex-girlfriend. So, if you haven’t noticed, Gibson has had a bit of trouble bouncing back from this drama. I, however, do not care, as awful as that sounds. Gibson’s personal life is Gibson’s personal life, not his career, and honestly, the two should not coincide. Truth be told though, he shouldn’t have trouble being welcomed back.
Why? It’s simple: he has now brought us Hacksaw Ridge, his first directorial outing since Apocalypto, and if you can get past the occasional cheesiness, what you’ll find is a masterful piece of filmmaking. The kind of film that reminds me of why we never should have given up on Mad Mel. The man still has it.
Hacksaw Ridge, blood, guts and all, is actually quite a wonderful film. A triumph of the human spirit, and just a great story overall. It has what has become a trademark in Gibson’s directorial work: it has its themes of faith, which it never bashes over the head surprisingly, and it also has lots of violence. Roger Ebert once claimed that Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was the most violent film he’d ever seen. Some might consider Gibson something of a sicko for the amount of gore on display, but I respond to it. Not because I love carnage and all that, but because it shows that Gibson is just trying to ground all of this in realism. Job well done.
It must also be noted that the film is rather ambitious, considering how much ground it covers in two hours. Reflecting on it this morning, I’ve noticed that some characters disappear and are never to be seen again. But then it occurred to me: it’s not their story. This is simply the story of Desmond Doss, and what a glorious celebration it is.
The film is basically told in two parts, and while there is a spoiler warning, remember that this stuff happened many decades ago:
Part 1: We see Doss in his younger years, living with his drunken war-recovering father (Hugo Weaving) and innocent mother (Rachael Griffiths). After almost accidentally murdering his brother, Doss then realizes his faith, and vows to never submit to violence again. (Well, there’s another instance too, but I’ll let the film reveal that one). Flash forward some years later, and Doss (now played by Andrew Garfield) is a soft-spoken, nice gentleman who enlists in the Army, in hopes of being a medic (his girlfriend, Dorothy, played wonderfully by Teresa Palmer, isn’t happy but supports him nonetheless).
Ah, but it’s not smooth sailing. Once his squad realizes that he isn’t willing to carry a rifle, everyone soon pretty much turns against him. Their leaders (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington, never better) practically urge the other members to taunt and abuse him, which leads to a court case.
Part 2: Flash forward again, and now Doss and squad are located in Okinawa, where they plan to attack on Hacksaw Ridge, a large cliff with a bunch of enemies at the top. It’s this segment where everything really kicks in to gear. Gibson stages these sequences so marvelously, you feel as if you’re in the battle with them. You fear for them, as they fear for themselves. It’s somewhat terrifying to say the least.
The remarkable thing is that through all of this gunfire and madness, Doss never once carries a weapon. And yet, now serving as a medic, he managed to save some 75 lives. Showing that what they say is true: violence is NOT the answer.
The early moments of Hacksaw Ridge show shades of cheesiness, but that’s just because of the innocence of it all. The rest of the film though, give or take a few moments of sprinkled cheesiness every so often, is extremely compelling. Violence aside, Gibson has made the kind of old-fashioned film we don’t find very often.
The first half is compelling; the second half is a complete thrill. As dazzling as this weekend’s Doctor Strange is, as an experience, this is more of the real deal. And truth be told, so is its hero.
As Doss, Garfield does easily his best work since The Social Network. The rest of the cast is great too, even if their roles are reduced after a while. But Garfield is the beating heart of this film, and in all honesty, so is Gibson. This kind of story requires a risk taker, and Gibson is just that risk taker.
Even if you have given up on Gibson, allow me to say this: Hacksaw Ridge will make you believe him in again. It’s just about perfect.