There are two moments during the second half of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge when I literally jumped out of my seat in terror. The film’s depiction of war is the best I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. At least, if there’s better, I’m having a hard time thinking of one. And it’s certainly gorier than the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. (At one point a U.S. soldier uses the partially disemboweled torso of a fellow fighter as a shield as he charges forward.) Both moments that made me jump out of my seat would probably classify as jump scares, something I usually detest. But a “jump scare” seems like a pretty good cinematic recreation of war. There are no cheap scares during the real thing. It’s all horrifying. And the second half of Hacksaw Ridge feels like a living nightmare.
But, like any “second half,” there’s a “first half” that comes before it. That’s just the way it works. And that’s not to say the first half of Hacksaw Ridge isn’t enjoyable or good, it’s just strikingly different. Hacksaw Ridge is very much two different movies, kind of the way Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket feels like two separate and unequal films.
The first half of Hacksaw Ridge plays out like a legal drama. It’s the real life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who for a plethora of reasons (both personal and religious) won’t carry a weapon, even though he volunteered for the army during World War II. Desmond wants to be a medic, but in basic training even the medics are required to go through firearm training.
You can probably guess how this all goes: At first, everyone hates Desmond. His drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) uses Desmond’s defiance against the whole platoon. But Desmond’s resolve never breaks, and his unit starts to find, at least sort of, a begrudging respect for Desmond’s convictions. And, yes, there’s a lot of Christian imagery in Hacksaw Ridge – this is a Mel Gibson movie for crying out loud – and even though it does feel overdone at time, it never seems out of place. This is the character. And going through basic training without a rifle, at the threat of a court martial, seems a bit overdone, too. In other words: it fits the character.
The problem with all of this is, even if we don’t know anything about Desmond Doss’ real-life story, we do know he doesn’t spend the whole war in Leavenworth based on the movie poster alone. And up to and including his final court battle, the movie is fine. But this isn’t the kind of stuff that Mel Gibson, as a director, excels at. Gibson likes to depict gory carnage. And in the second half, we see a lot of gory carnage.
This is the paragraph I’ve been dreading, the one where we are supposed to discuss how we are supposed to feel while watching a Mel Gibson movie, because of what’s happened in his personal life. The truth is, when I think about it, I feel lousy. And, honestly, what more is there to say? This has been a very well documented thing.
The second half of Hacksaw Ridge plays like a horror film. Desmond’s unit is tasked with taking a ridge currently occupied by Japanese forces. He see the truckloads of the dead bodies of the soldiers who had tried and failed to accomplish what Desmond’s unit is supposed to do. One trick Gibson uses is the fear of the unknown. Most deliberately: When will the shooting start? Desmond’s unit walks through smoky terrain, unable to see, knowing the shooting is about to start, they just don’t know when and from how far away. Gibson keeps viewers in suspense until it feels like Hell itself opens up and cascades destruction on everything we can see.
I saw Hacksaw Ridge on the same day I saw Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Generally I enjoy Ang Lee films more than I do Mel Gibson films, yet comparing these two directors trying to depict the horrors of war, this is a talent that Mr. Gibson just possesses. (And, sadly, Lee might not.) Gibson’s purpose in life and culture from here forward is still very much in doubt, but he can certainly do this. He was born to do certain things, and one of them was to depict war scenes so brutal that it makes a viewers jump out of their seats. Mel Gibson is here, now, as a director, to upset you. But at least, this time, it’s warranted.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.