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Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

I have seen a lot of action movies. I mean A LOT! I started watching rated R rated movies when I was WAY too young (like anybody else who also had a father that raised them right). Hell, one doesn’t get the prestigious position of resident action movie expert of The Movie Review Crew by being some girly man who enjoys a nice drama (That’s how my brother got to be resident boring movie expert). I got that position by watching action movies CONSTANTLY, by dredging through hours and hours of straight to DVD hell, by not being embarrassed to admit that I have an undying love for Jean Claude Van Damme (I won’t blame you if you fault me for that one, but I still won’t be embarrassed). . . and MOSTLY I got it because I’m related to the guy that started the podcast (sue me; it helps to know people). The point is; I have seen a lot of action movies and as a result, I have seen a lot of violence in movies. I thought I had seen it all. I thought the days of being affected by on-screen violence were behind me. Then Hacksaw Ridge came along.

Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of Desmond T. Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the medal of honor. This movie has three parts; I’ll call them Pre-War, Training, and War. Pre-War shows Doss’s childhood, including the events that create his aversion to violence and his promise to God to never touch a gun. We get to see his introduction to, and the development of his relationship with, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer; You’ve seen her in things. . . not any good things, but you’ve seen her). These events, his relationship with his family, with Dorothy, and with God, will be the driving forces behind Doss’s actions throughout the movie. Now, this first part of the movie might be a little misleading to some of you manly movie lovers out there. I mean, this is a war movie directed by THE Mel Gibson and we’re sitting through 20-30 minutes of stuff we could see on literally every Hallmark movie. It’s sappy, it’s corny, but somehow it works. The fact that this all works is a testament to Andrew Garfield as Doss. He plays Doss as a doe eyed, innocent (maybe a bit slow), southern boy. He comes across a bit like Forrest Gump, where he is such a nice human being you can’t help but root for him in everything he does.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) and Dorothy Schutte (Palmer)

Once Doss is established as a character, he enlists in the army and we get the second part of the movie: Training. Doss is sent to boot camp where he meets his squad mates. These squadmates are all pretty cliche, two dimensional characters, but they are likeable enough to get past that. We get see Doss and his squad go through the rigors of training, led by Sergeant Howell ( a surprisingly solid Vince Vaughn). Vaughn displays a perfect balance of humor and intimidation. His hulking stature (he stands 6’5” and he’s not exactly skinny) allows him to tower over the soldiers as he belittles them and drives them through their training. Vaughn balances his natural talent for comedy with a no nonsense father-like figure. The result is a believable leader and a highlight of the movie.

Vince Vaughn as Sgt. Howell, his best performance of his career.

Doss performs all the training required with the exception of rifle training. He refuses to shoot, or even touch, a gun, which doesn’t sit well with Sgt. Howell. Doss’s beliefs and convictions are put to the test as he is ostracized from his squad since his beliefs are seen cowardice (I’m not sure how someone who is willing to go to war WITHOUT a weapon is seen as a coward. I would probably ruin my drawers if I had to go to war, ESPECIALLY without a weapon!). Doss is abused physically and mentally in an attempt to get him to either change his beliefs or quit the army entirely. Doss refuses to do either and is eventually arrested and put on trial for insubordination. The training and trial are clearly emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing for Doss but he sticks true to his beliefs and his convictions. Andrew Garfield is a talented actor and that helps lend all of these scenes some emotional heft. As I said before, Garfield plays Doss as a doe eyed, innocent man and we get to see all of the emotions in his eyes and on his face. We see his naive smile as he first enters training camp ready to do his part, we see his disbelief and lack of understanding when he is treated harshly for believing the things he does, we see the fear and doubt when he realizes how serious the arrest and trial are, and we see his determination and steadfastness as he decides he is unwilling to change his beliefs. Garfield is AMAZING in this role and, as a result, we feel everything he feels, and that allows the movie to have a tremendous impact.

Once Doss’s trial is finished, the third part of the movie begins; The War, and what a war it is! The American troops must ascend Hacksaw Ridge and push forward against the Japanese troops. The Americans have tried multiple times to push the Japanese troops back, but EVERY time they are forced to retreat back down the cliff. Doss’s unit is up next to ascend the cliff and attempt to force the Japanese to retreat. THIS is why I watch movies! This war is EASILY the most intense, blunt force, gut-wrenching, hard hitting war action I have ever seen on screen. When people talk about the movie going experience, THIS is what they are talking about. Mel Gibson allows us to truly experience war. He makes you feel the war in a way I haven’t felt since Saving Private Ryan, and this makes even that pale in comparison. Gibson set out to make an anti-war film, a film that truly shows the horrors of war, and he succeeds with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Gibson hides NOTHING from the viewer. He uses none of the shakey cam usually seen in war movies; instead using carefully planned and executed shots to show the extreme violence of war. We are shown limbs severed and blown off, head shots, grenades exploding bodies, flamethrowers roasting people alive, dead bodies being eaten by rats. We are shown ALL of this and we are shown it clearly. No camera shaking, no cut aways from the violence, and no punches pulled; In fact there are many shots that are in slow motion. The results of all of this are battle scenes that are absolutely horrific, awe-inspiring, chaotic, and poetic all at the same time. Gibson takes the saying “War is Hell” literally, and he creates a real life Hell on Earth. As I said before, I have seen a ton of movies and, as a result, I have become almost desensitized to on-screen violence. It takes something special to have an impact on me, and this movie is beyond special in that regards. This is easily one of the most impactful movies I have seen this year.

Throughout the battle scenes, and amidst the carnage of the war, we see the acts of bravery Doss performs. Doss does things so amazing they border on unbelievable (Seriously, I had to look this up. It ALL happened). Doss is driven by his convictions and by his belief in God to do extraordinary acts of heroism. While battle rages on around him, while men are torn apart by other men, while explosions burst and fire erupts blurring the line between Hell and Earth, Doss navigates the battlefield as a medic treating and saving 75 wounded soldiers; The inspiring heroics, and Doss’s unwavering determination to save as many men as he possibly can, counteract the extreme violence of the war and give a truly genuine feeling of hope and triumph.

Everything about this movie is amazing. The acting is outstanding across the board; The standouts being Garfield as Doss and Hugo Weaving’s brilliant portrayal of Desmond’s father, a haunted World War I veteran struggling to cope with his demons. The most surprising performance, as I touched on earlier is Vince Vaughn. He is perfectly cast for the role and he blends comedy and serious drama to create a real, believable character.

The story is told perfectly; at just over 2 hours it is long enough to do justice to the real hero that Desmond Doss is, yet short enough to avoid feeling overlong. The best thing this movie does story wise is tell Doss’s story and acknowledge the role of faith without becoming preachy. Doss’s actions, and his entire life, are driven by his faith, and faith is a theme of the movie, but instead of focusing on religion, the focal point of the movie is staying true to oneself and one’s beliefs and convictions regardless of their foundation. I believe this will help the film resonate with a wider audience instead of focusing on only those with religious beliefs.

The directing in this movie is absolutely perfect! Mel Gibson is as talented as they come behind the camera. He makes violent movies, but I don’t believe he makes violent movies for the sake of showing violence. He simply understands; In order to have the most profound impact, in order to to fully understand the extent of the triumphs his characters achieve, he must show the hell they endure to achieve them. Think of The Passion of the Christ; In that, he was making a movie about what he believes to be the ultimate sacrifice EVER made. The extent of that sacrifice could only be felt if he put the viewer through the gauntlet that Jesus endured. Hacksaw Ridge is similar. In order for us to realize the bravery of these soldiers, we need to experience the horrors they experienced. Mel Gibson set out to make a movie honoring the heroes that serve in wars, while at the same time making a movie that stresses the appalling consequences of war and the effect it has on individual people and humanity as a whole. In order to convey that message, Gibson MUST show the horrible things he shows in this movie. Without taking it to that level, Hacksaw Ridge would just be an action movie. By showing the brutality of war and the awful experience Doss goes through, and by allowing the audience to experience what he went through, this movie becomes more than an action movie; It becomes an experience that has a genuine impact on the viewer.

Mel Gibson on set, his return to directing after 10 years.

RATING: 9 out of 10

Overall, Hacksaw Ridge is one of the best war movies I have ever seen, and one of the best movies I have ever seen period. It is ABSOLUTELY a must watch movie, and I promise it will have an impact on you in some way. Everything from the acting, to the story, to the directing, comes together to form a near perfect movie. Please, go watch this movie and let me know your thoughts on it in the comment section. Let me know what I was right about, let me know what I was wrong about, let me know what movie you want me to write about next, or just leave a message saying hello. Anything you want to say; just leave it in the comments and I’ll talk back at you. As always, Thank you for reading!

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