In “Hacksaw Ridge,” director Mel Gibson gets to have it both ways: He condemns the horrors of war while reveling in its gory details. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Those with a low (or even medium) tolerance for on-screen violence may have to look away now and again from the graphic mayhem Gibson depicts during the bloody battle between U.S. and Japanese forces for a strategic cliff on the island of Okinawa.
By that point, though, “Hacksaw Ridge” has gotten its narrative hooks into you. The story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a likable young man from Virginia who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and won the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot, is one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that seem tailor-made for the movies. How Doss’ story had never been turned into a feature film until now is puzzling.
But Gibson turns out to have been the perfect director for this material, as fearless about depicting Doss’ strong religious beliefs (he was a Seventh-day Adventist who observed Sabbath on Saturdays) as he is about showing the effects a hand grenade has on the human body.
The first half of “Hacksaw Ridge,” which Gibson directs with an earnest simplicity that suits its time period, follows Doss as he grows up under battling parents (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths), falls in love with a nurse (Teresa Palmer) and endures cruel torment at the hands of his fellow soldiers, supervised by a hot-tempered sergeant (Vince Vaughn) who can’t believe this skinny country boy refuses to so much as hold a rifle.
The movie is so self-consciously old-fashioned, it transcends cornball and loops back around again. Then comes the battlefield, and you start longing for the quaintness to return. “Hacksaw Ridge” may be too syrupy for cynical tastes and too brutal for the timid. But subtlety has never been one of Gibson’s strengths as a filmmaker, and this amazing story of heroism can take anything he throws at it and keep going, much like Doss himself.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths.
Director: Mel Gibson.
Screenwriters: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight.
A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 131 minutes. Vulgar language, graphic war violence, extreme gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.