This was one of the few outliers from last year’s crop of Best Picture candidates I had yet to see. Based on the trailer (which I’ve included at the end), I wasn’t very excited for it. Actually, I thought it looked incredibly corny and had no desire to buy a ticket. Much to my surprise, the movie garnered critical acclaim and I figured I should probably give it a chance before the Academy Awards roll around.
Without a doubt, the story of Desmond Doss is a truly remarkable one. His conviction, steadfast and unflinching in the face of almost unanimous opposition. The sheer strength of his character and magnitude of his heart were displayed powerfully on screen. Unfortunately, this film was far from remarkable.
I was anticipating a much different experience. There is no question this film was sold as a war epic with this unassuming hero at the center. What I got was very much a mixed bag. There is war, but I’d be hard pressed to call it a war movie. Doss’s character and resolve are the fulcrum, but much of the two-hour and twenty minute run time is wasted on cliche. This movie starts at the end, then immediately jumps 16 years into the past. A mechanism used far too often and doesn’t serve any purpose here. It would have been simpler and cleaner to just start in the past. However, because of the trailer, I get the feeling starting the film with Desmond as a boy would have been confusing.
Mel Gibson hadn’t directed a full length feature in 10-years and the rust is evident. As a fan of his work, it hurts a bit to call it out. Apocalypto (2006), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Braveheart (1995) were all fantastic films. Hacksaw Ridge is just nowhere near that level. The first half of the movie is spent building Doss’s character from childhood, complete with Cain and Abel origin story just to spoon feed the audience his objection to violence. This is not Gibson’s wheelhouse when it comes to directing. It felt clumsy and mostly unnecessary. I spent the first 45-minutes wondering how in the world this movie got nominated for Best Picture. Nothing about it felt up to par during the opening third of the film. By the time we arrive at Doss meeting his future wife Dorothy, the movie finally began to hit its stride. That is where the movie really should have started. The familiarity of the situation helped to make him a more relatable character and gave the audience something to cheer for.
The final act of the film finds our protagonist at Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, Japan…albeit a dramatized version of its unassuming real life counterpart. Having won his legal battle with the military (obviously), his mettle is finally put to the test on the battlefield. During a moment in the trenches, Doss confides in a fellow soldier and divulges the reason and moment in which he promised God he wouldn’t use a gun. That moment effectively submarined the entire beginning of the film and made it feel even more wasteful in hindsight. As for the war, it’s relentless. The utter brutality of it, a horror to behold. The viscera on display required a lot of ingenuity by the visual effects team and practical application of timed explosives. There are some interesting battle sequences but much of the action felt played out, far too reliant on slow motion. It just felt redundant, like watching the same sequences play out repeatedly. John Gilbert could have and should have left much of this film on the editing room floor.
When I saw Andrew Garfield was nominated for his portrayal of Doss, I was a more than a bit skeptical to say the least. He was a good Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-man films, but I hadn’t seen him deliver any award worthy performances since The Social Network (2010). After watching him in Hacksaw Ridge I understand, despite the shit-eating grin on his face for much of the film. Undoubtedly he studied the real life Doss and did his best to embody the personality. All of the the films resonance was on Garfield’s shoulders and he delivered. That being said, it wasn’t the best acting performance of the year and he won’t be taking home the Oscar.
Vince Vaughn was a bit of a surprise as Sergeant Howell. The character was clearly written with his wry sense of humor in mind and seemed an odd fit for a drill sergeant. Sam Worthington was strong as Captain Glover. The juxtaposition of the younger man as the senior officer to Howell felt a bit strange at first, but Worthington had the right temperament for the role. The biggest surprise was Teresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte. Serving mostly as a pretty face without much heavy lifting required earlier in her career, she was very strong throughout the film. Her relationship with Desmond served as a constant grounding force. The emotion she displayed felt authentic despite the non existent chemistry between her and Garfield. Hugo Weaving brought some gravitas to the cast playing Desmond’s father Tom. An abusive alcoholic and World War I veteran, much of Desmond’s worldview is shaped by his relationship with his father and having an actor of Weaving’s caliber helped solidify that narrative.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for that epic war movie, this isn’t it. It’s certainly not Best Picture material, but by the time it’s all said and done, you’ll walk away feeling like you watched a good movie. However, the lengthy run time isn’t for those short on patience.