With his personal life shrouded in controversy in recent years, Mel Gibson’s on-screen outings have been few and far between and he hasn’t directed in over a decade. He makes his long-awaited return to the director’s chair for war drama Hacksaw Ridge, which tells the incredible true story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist World War II medic who refused to carry a weapon. We’re introduced to the him during a turbulent childhood in Virginia, and when a fight with his younger brother ends in a brutal attack with a brick, he is led to re-evaluate his religious principles. Years later, Doss (Andrew Garfield) enlists to serve for his country in Japan, much to the dismay of his doting wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and father Tom (Hugo Weaving) a veteran who is mentally scarred from losing friends in the First World War.
The film is undoubtedly at its strongest when it goes to battle. Bloody violence and claustrophobic dread are implemented brilliantly in gripping combat sequences at Hacksaw Ridge. These scenes are frighteningly good, but it’s a shame that the narrative build-up is so weighed down in awful Nicholas Sparks style schmaltz. As Doss enthusiastically woos his wife-to-be with a grinning Forrest Gumpian goofiness, the script plays for laughs but treads in pathetically cringeworthy territory. Moments when the story should be emotional and hard-hitting are hampered by clichéd dialogue and ham-fisted symbolic imagery which slightly cheapen the amazing real-life events that took place.
Andrew Garfield does a fine job in what is quite an imbalanced performance, as he quickly transforms from soppy sap to fully fledged action war hero. With limited screen time and lazily written material, Teresa Palmer is pretty good as Dorothy. Her relationship with Desmond is precipitously stitched together as swiftly as it is then cast aside to make way for the epic episode of warfare that follows. The bond Desmond shares with his troubled father is far more genuine and affecting, thanks to a superb turn from Hugo Weaving. Among the army regiment, Vince Vaughn laps up his unusual role as wise-cracking, ball-breaking Sergeant Howell. The part itself is entirely far-fetched but he supplies more entertainment than most as he whips the soldiers into shape with savage put-downs.
With the unwavering moral compass of Desmond Doss at its beating heart, Hacksaw Ridge feels like an exercise in redemption for director Mel Gibson. Despite its flaws, it succeeds in bringing the relatively unknown story to our attention, giving it the limelight it deserves after the project was banded around in development hell for years. The handling of the subject matter is often as subtle as the aforementioned brick, but the highly intense conflict at Okinawa is the film’s saving grace, giving us unforgiving and unforgettable battlefield scenes that will stand up against the very best cinematic depictions of war.