Hacksaw Ridge (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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Desmond Doss is a man of humility and loves God.  When World War II escalates he is just as ready as his brother to head to the front lines.  But Desmond is a conscientious objector who will not touch a gun or kill another human.  Tensions mounting within his unit and looming threat of battle challenge Desmond's faith.  Mel Gibson directs Hacksaw Ridge, with the screenplay written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, and stars Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, and Hugo Weaving.

The United States of America is not a Christian nation.  This is my position in a debate that will likely persist long after I've left this body.  Objectors can quote the more obvious Christian leanings of some founders, while I could quote the deistic or agnostic leanings of others.  I think we can both agree that neither major political party is Christian, as they both worship capitalism and military power in a way inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Despite my stance on the United States' ostensible Christianity I can't deny we sometimes produce one hell of a Christian.  Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the hero of Hacksaw Ridge, was one of them.  Director Mel Gibson is not.  The tension of Hacksaw Ridge is fueled in-part by Gibson's public sins of antisemitism and abuse.  It's hard not to feel Gibson's human hungers around the edge of Desmond's presentation, who is one of the lustiest (and most refreshing) Christian characters to grace the screen of this or any other war movie.

A heavy dose of charming and healthy sexual attraction serves as a surprising introduction to Desmond.

Another director might have been more inclined to play up the saintly side of Desmond.  Gibson embraces the pains and pleasures of Desmond's life in shocking bouts of domestic violence with war scenes that would be comical if they didn't serve such as a philosophical counterpoint to Desmond's conscientious objection.  Listen to the thunk of the soundtrack when Desmond is a child and smacks his brother with a brick when a fight isn't going his way.  The shock of the sound and the suddenly limp body of his brother do more to signal why Desmond goes the route of conscientious objection better than any reading of scripture.

I also struggle to think of another director that would have pushed Hugo Weaving into darkness as thoroughly as Gibson does.  Weaving plays Desmond's father, Tom Doss, firmly in the grips of alcoholism as a way of drowning the pain from losing his friends in World War I.  Weaving plays Tom as a pained parody of masculinity, unable to fight for himself anymore and half-heartedly encouraging it from his kids, too drunk to completely give into his rage and when weeps heavily at his helplessness.  It's the best Weaving has been in a long time and even his one redemptive moment is undercut by the fact that Tom goes back to the booze.  Sometimes we need reminders that redemption is not a one-time fire then forget but a process of atonement that may last the rest of our lives.

The lust of human need keeps the opening scenes of Desmond courting Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) from hollow Americana.  Garfield and Palmer have spectacular chemistry together, with every corny one-liner leading to kisses that hint at behavior that might be sinful in another movie.  Their attraction is so natural and powerful that I would have been perfectly content if Hacksaw Ridge turned out to be a romantic drama.  The editing also deserves special mention, with an early trip to the hospital cutting from Desmond being viscerally overwhelmed by what he's done, followed by floating in spiritual elation in the hospital, before the camera settles on his first sight of Dorothy.  It's a perfect wordless summation of one core rhythm of humanity - the physicality of existence, the spirituality of meaning, and the carnality of lust.

Now - about those war scenes.  I admit my first exposure to them was via animated GIFs and they presented a level of cartoonish violence that seemed at-odds with Desmond's life.  In motion Gibson's battle scenes are a surprisingly effective illustration of why Desmond believes in pacifism.  We're primed for heightened visuals thanks to the lust of the earlier scenes, and when men start screaming like they're in a low-budget horror film the effect is one of cosmic absurdity.  The battles are not about capturing verisimilitude à la Saving Private Ryan, but about highlighting the philosophical uselessness of war. Man's inhumanity to man is no more plain than the visual of one American soldier using the corpse of another as a shield to advance on Japanese soldiers.

If I were more cynical I might look at the war scenes and laugh, but then I think of the terrifying directness of the living dead pleading to Desmond with their eyes.

The emotional and spiritual anchor throughout all this is Garfield.  He was great in Martin Scorsese's Silence, but in Hacksaw Ridge embodies Desmond's natural desire to protect in a primal way.  When Desmond says of his relationship with God, "I like to think he hears me, but it ain't a conversation," Garfield lets the line come out as naturally as asking for water.  Garfield's eyes do not go hollow when confronted with violence but they're not possessed either.  He looks for all the world like a creature whose natural instinct is to heal and protect, and Garfield's shocked withdrawal into himself after a long night on the ridge is roused by his unit's need for his protection once more.  It's stunning work.

When I say stunning, I mean it literally.  I sat in stunned tears from the first battle on through the rest of Hacksaw Ridge.  I couldn't take notes. I couldn't pause. I couldn't give myself a break.  Desmond is as pure a representation of living in Christ's example as there is, Garfield lets that goodness flow through naturally, and Gibson's direction always tugs at how difficult that kind of life is.  All I could do is watch a humble, lusty, and fundamentally decent human being transcend the sins of our race to live for others.

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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Directed by Mel Gibson.
Screenplay written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Hugo Teresa Palmer, and Hugo Weaving.

Posted by Andrew

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