Nothing like a good ol’ martyr story from Mel Gibson
I’m mean to Mel Gibson. Oh that’s not a shy confession, I’m proud of that shit. Because when you pimp out a film all about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and it turns out to be a two hour snuff film that everyone swears is deeper than what it is; when you get caught saying horrible shit about Jews on a drunken bender; and when you get caught verbally abusing the mother of your child while also degrading another race of people…I’ve got no fucking sympathy for you if you haven’t shown any attempts for redemption, no matter how many years have passed. This is the part that frustrates me about Mel Gibson, who’s very proud of his Christian faith, and seems to forget all about “forgiveness of sins” and puts all his chips into feeding a deeply disturbed martyr complex.
South Park accurately brought attention to this uncomfortable fascination Gibson has self-punishment when you take stock of his tortured roles in Lethal Weapon and Mad Max to his directed protagonists that get the ever loving ba-Jesus beaten out of them in Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto. So too you have it with his latest directorial entry in Hacksaw Ridge, that takes a look at one of the most famous conscientious objectors in American history, who nonetheless earned the Medal of Honor for his role in saving dozens of lives on the battlefield in Japan. Where does the martyr shit come into play? Let’s take a look at the cast first…
We got Andrew Garfield continuing his own redemption tour from the maligned Amazing Spider-Man films as Private Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who willingly enlists in the military during the middle of World War II despite two glaring problems: 1) Doss is VERY devout of his pacifist belief that he cannot even harm another person and 2) the guy won’t even pick up a gun to protect himself. Naturally this is a huge problem for his drill master (Vince Vaughn), his commanding officer (Sam Worthington), and his fellow trainees especially from a fellow named Smitty (played by the Paul Walker knockoff from the terrible Point Break remake). They first belittle Doss, emasculate him, threaten him, and generally treat him like shit to just quit the army…but Doss doesn’t crack. Hell, they just break down the machismo and just try to appeal to Doss’ humanity that his refusal to kill could put several people’s lives at risk. But even upon threat of court marshal, Doss is resolute to serve in the Army as a combat medic without a gun because of very important events that affected his life.
The one downside I have with this film is that showing you these “very important” events is through a very slow first act that feels incredibly muddled. The actors aren’t doing a bad job (quite the opposite), but it’s the writing and directing. Everything in the first 30 minutes feels sluggish and is so different from the rest of the film that I can’t help but feel Gibson got bored with it and had someone else stitch together an introduction because he was too busy readying a balls to the wall war movie. It doesn’t help that a good portion of this part of the movie is occupied by Doss’ flirtations with his future wife played by Teresa Palmer. The pair have chemistry, but their courtship doesn’t add much to the story save for the fact that Palmer’s character provides Doss with her Bible that he carries with him everywhere and is used throughout the film.
Priorities aside, the introduction does feature some pretty stellar acting from Hugo Weaving as Doss’ alcoholic father who has a complicated relationship with the young man primarily because he was the sole survivor from their small town after all the boys enlisted to fight in World War I. The scenes with Weaving are pure dramatic bliss. They are wracked with emotion as you this man commit some pretty heinous acts but you nonetheless somehow pity the man both because of what he’s gone through and what he wishes he could be for his family. It’s probably too early to say this, but I sincerely hope Weaving gets a Best Supporting Actor nod at the Oscars. He’s THAT fucking good.
And he plays off of Garfield extremely well, who in turn submits his own strong performance. I liked his complicated and magnetic turn in 99 Homes more, but Garfield demonstrates to the world why he was such an up and coming actor in the first place and continues to be. His performance is especially critical during his big hero moment where demonstrates exactly how is it Desmond Doss received the accolades he did and why it was so truly inspiring. From the exhaustion in his voice, to his short prayer of “Please let me save one more,” you realize that the movie was building up to this amazing moment…and it succeeded despite the aforementioned critiques.
Helping him along in this journey are two actors I had admittedly written off as terrible: Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey. Both appear to be one note asshole characters who have no patience for Doss’ Bible thumping, but slowly reveal themselves to have way more depth than they were letting on. Their blasting of testosterone was partly for their sakes, yet it was mostly because they just didn’t feel like dying because someone wasn’t doing their jobs. But when Doss goes beyond the call of duty in performing his role as a medic, respect for the man is shown through rough cracks in their hard exteriors. This great character transformation is also demonstrated by Vince Vaughn, who also shows up to work as another solid supporting cast member in a movie filled with them.
See, THIS is how you do savior stories Snowden and The Birth of a Nation (Christ, I’m gonna get hate mail for saying this). It’s fine that you want to focus every bit of your film in service of your main character, but you can’t populate your films with characters who demonstrate unyielding allegiance to their Jesus Dalai Lama Christ. At least, not before they earn their moment of commanding respect. And this something Gibson understands perfectly well as a storyteller. To quote South Park once more, “Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the son of a bitch knows story structure.”
While Gibson’s upbringing as a fierce Christian has no doubt influenced some pretty despicable behavior in his personal life, his psyche has also affected his art in profound ways. The deification of people who stick to their beliefs even as the whole world tells them to stand down is palpable to Gibson, but it really appears that he’s one of the few directors who knows how to get the eagles swelling within people about these subjects. Like his contemporaries in Oliver Stone and Nate Parker, Gibson directs his main actor as an extension of himself; but unlike them, he remembers to add humanity to everyone around his hero to truly grasp the weight of his accomplishments.
Further, he acknowledges Doss’ own sins which affected his demeanor and creed for the rest of his life, so you understand why this guy seeks to emulate the life of Jesus Christ…without actually being Jesus Christ. Also, you don’t have meek followers gazing in awe of Doss and you don’t have cartoonish villains seeking his destruction. You instead have men who have been pushed to the brink of their sanity on the American side and Japanese soldiers simply doing their jobs. Doss’ accomplishments in saving both people is what makes him a hero not only to Gibson, but to the audience as well.
Quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this, but I still wouldn’t call this one of the “best” World War II movies out there. Tora! Tora! Tora!, Saving Private Ryan, and Letters from Iwo Jima are the high marks for me, but this film hangs around the quality war films that Fury and Enemy at the Gates occupy. The violence on display is fierce and it could be considered shocking to those who normally don’t see these kinds of movies, but it pales in comparison to the hell blast that was the opening fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan or even Gibson’s own The Passion of the Christ. Nonetheless, I’ll commend Gibson for not going overboard and depicting the horrors of war tastefully rather than some crass exploitation like in Pearl Harbor.
I’d check this one out in theaters; especially if you’re big into military history, I don’t doubt you’ll be pleased paying FULL PRICE for this. For everyone else, I’m not calling this one of my favorites of the year, but this is nonetheless a strong…