Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

One of the funniest things to me about the advertising campaign for this movie was how it always seemed to say "from the director of Braveheart" without mentioning Mel Gibson's name, which is kind of understandable - he's been in movie jail for about ten years, not without cause, and there are still a lot of people that are going to react badly to his name. It didn't escape my attention that this is an Australian movie (Hugo Weaving in the cast is a sort of dead giveaway), with some Chinese backing, and it's not surprising that he got a chance to make a big comeback there rather than in Hollywood It seems like he's finally doing the thing I've been hoping he would for a while - saying, basically, that the worst parts of him come out when he's drunk, something that he always seemed to have too much ego to do. His last starring vehicle, Blood Father, was all but direct to video.

He's an interesting guy to do this one, though, given that he's got a strong but non-mainstream Christian background himself, though he's a very traditional Catholic rather than a Seventh Day Adventist like Desmond Doss. I wonder if that helped the film a lot, in that he could sort of grasp the depth of the character's belief but didn't feel the need to push the specifics of it, and show it as a major part of Doss's life without giving it the sort of weight that the folks making "faith-based" films might. He's also got a lot of skill at doing something on a grand scale (and an eye for popular appeal) that those guys don't.

It feels a little weird to be as happy to see Gibson back as I am, given that I've got a pretty hard line where Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are concerned (I will watch their stuff against once they are safely dead and unable to profit from it). I guess it's good to know where your line is, though.

Hacksaw Ridge

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2016 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

For better or worse, Hacksaw Ridge does not mess around; its filmmakers know what they want to do with their true story of an non-violent war hero, and much of the movie feels as conventional as its subject is not. On the other hand, that direct nature becomes a real asset once it gets to the battlefield, as director Mel Gibson, freed to tell the story with action more than words, manages to make one of the more bloody and visceral battle scenes put to film something impressively focused.

The man in question is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a young man in rural Virginia who, at the start of World War II, was registered as a conscientious objector due to his pacifist religious beliefs. For most people, seeing how serving in the prior war had left his father (Hugo Weaving) an alcoholic, abusive shell of a man might be enough to reinforce that, but helping treat a man injured in an accident triggers his desire to serve, though as a medic. As one might imagine, his refusal to even touch a weapon, his refusal to even touch a weapon does not exactly go over well in basic training, with unit captain Glover (Sam Worthington) suggesting Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) do all he can to make Doss quit.

Given that the film is named after a battle rather than the training camp and opens with a flash-forward to Okinawa, the opening arc of the story is a path that is never in any particular doubt. There's the nice girl, the group of recruits given introductions just memorable enough that you can tell them apart but not so much that they're likely to steal the movie from Doss, the colorful moments during training that will almost certainly be referenced later, and, finally, the court-martial that gives Doss a chance to lay why he's doing this thing out there. That it's formulaic isn't a particularly bad thing; the military, small-town life, and religion all have patterns and rituals that would require explanation if broken. What's important is that while there are some bumps - two flashbacks hinting at reasons why Doss may recoil from touching a weapon for personal reasons rather than just religious principle seems a bit much may be a little much - this part of the film is capably handled. The filmmakers avoid drawing familiar things out, for the most part, and make a good call in portraying Desmond Doss as kind of an odd duck with some kind of unreasonable expectations about how people will respond to him rather than just a man unfairly persecuted for his religious convictions. It's not fancy, and some viewers will mentally be checking things off a list, but it's good enough.

Full review on EFC.

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