Movie Review: Mel Gibson seeks redemption on “Hacksaw Ridge”

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Mel Gibson seeks cinematic redemption for his non-cinematic sins by going to his safe space with “Hacksaw Ridge,” a violent and visceral combat movie that doubles as a faith-based film.

His name isn’t on the advertising, but “Hacksaw,” the story of a conscientious objector who became a Medal of Honor winner, is being aggressively marketed to Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” audience. And it’s a vivid reminder of Gibson’s gifts as a storyteller with pictures, and of the fact he has few peers when it comes to staging convincing combat on the big screen.

Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a skinny, gawky Blue Ridge Mountain Virginian so scarred by childhood violence that he’s uncompromising about the Bible’s “Thou shalt not kill.” He will not pick up a gun, will not take life. But he will go into battle with the rest of his generation — unarmed. He will be “a conscientious co-operator.”

The Andrew Knight (“Water Diviner”)/Robert Schenkkan (HBO’s “All the Way”) script gives us a great early scene establishing Doss’s resolve. He’s the sort who runs to a car accident, who doesn’t panic or flinch at gruesome injuries. His instinct is to save life.

Hugo Weaving plays his haunted, WWI vet father, a violent drunk who only has one lesson to impart to his two sons when war comes — and that lesson’s delivered in a veteran’s cemetery.

Desmond isn’t cut out for this. “You’ve gotta sit and think and pray about everything,” Dad says. He can’t make war “fit in with your ideas” and ideals.

His new gal, the nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) is stricken by the decision. And the Army joins the chorus telling Desmond that his never-touch-a-gun philosophy just won’t wash in the Pacific. Vince Vaughn plays the drill sergeant who bullies and encourages company hazing to change Doss’s mind, Sam Worthington is the captain who doesn’t want this “coward” in his outfit. Doss is unshaken.

“While everybody else is taking life, I’ll be saving it.” He wants to be a medic.

The movie staggers to a halt in basic training, with Vaughn rattling through a stiff (high speed) recitation of DI (drill instructor) cliches and insults. He mocks guys nicknamed “Hollywood” and “Teach” and Tex, ridicules a darker skinned recruit as “Chief” and makes him do Indian war chants. Doss?

“I have seen stalks of CORN with better physiques.”

But the quicksand of corn dries up when “Hacksaw” gets to Okinawa. On one of the bloodiest pieces of turf of World War II, Doss, the movie and Gibson prove their mettle. As he showed in “Braveheart,” Gibson has a real eye for the grim tableaux of combat, and a real passion for showing how brutal, brutish and personal it is. He reminds us that “visceral” violence means you show viscera — guts and blood and exploding heads and severed limbs.

The mayhem will may you grimace, wince and avert your eyes. But not Doss. He plunges right in to do what he came to do, after risking abuse, beating and a court martial just to be able to do it.

Garfield, sort of this generation’s Tony “Psycho” Perkins, has the right rail-thin Depression Era look and sensitivity for this part, and he’s both sympathetic and convincing. Palmer (“Warm Bodies,””Point Break”) has perhaps her best supporting role ever and makes the most of this Southern Christian willing to go toe to toe over dogma with her man.

“This is pride, pride and stubbornness,” she snaps at Desmond’s determination to be in the Army on his terms. “Don’t confuse your will for the Lord’s!”

hacksaw2Weaving is terrific, as always, and Griffiths brings heart and soul to the mother. Worthington whisper-growls his lines.

But if all these Australians didn’t give away the game, the film never quite manages to convince us that its first half is set in Virginia. You may be able to recreate Okinawa in the deserts of Australia, but you can’t fake the Blue Ridge in New South Wales. Gibson returned not just to the safe space of familiar genres and his faith-based audience for this movie, but to the land where he grew up and started his film career.

That said, it’s a good-if-not-great movie, old fashioned but anachronistic dialogue, action that’s more impressive than inspiring, a combat film that like Eastwood’s Western “Unforgiven,” tries to have it both ways — a sermon against the violence of man delivered in a very violent story. Whether it brings a talented filmmaker back from the wilderness years after his various intolerances burst out in the open is up to the audience.

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MPAA Rating:R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Rachel Griffiths

Credits:Directed by  Mel Gibson, script by Andrew Knight  and Robert Schenkkan. A Summit/Lionsgate release.

Running time: 2:25

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