Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, 2016)
How much should a director’s personal history count when judging his or her work? We cinephiles just confronted this question with the recent release of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, for which the man’s past history of rape allegations posed a problem. Or not, depending on how one answers the initial question. Parker is not alone. We have long had to worry about folks like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, to name but two directors confronted with sex scandals of their own, as well as countless other filmmakers whose personal politics we abhor. Each of us has to decide, for ourselves, whether the art stands apart from the artist. I tend to fall on the side of judging the work, rather than the person who made it, but I am not immune from the influence of my feelings about the filmmaker, either.
And now there’s a new film from Mel Gibson, whose drunken anti-Semitic rant 10 years ago, shouted after he was pulled over for a DUI, cast a seemingly permanent pall over a once-illustrious career as both actor and director. To be honest, I have always liked Gibson, the actor – including in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet, where he made a fine young Prince of Denmark – and have liked at least two of the now five narrative features he has directed: the Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995) and Apocalypto (released in 2006, post-meltdown). If one is to consider context when analyzing Gibson’s latest directorial opus, however, it is perhaps of greater value to look at the thematic recurrences in his earlier works as a guide to the good and the bad in Hacksaw Ridge. Unless, of course, Gibson’s past transgressions preclude you from any thought of seeing anything else he does, which is your right.
No matter his chosen subject, Gibson always seems to be obsessed with violence, which makes it especially odd that he here focuses on the life and heroic actions of Desmond Doss, a real-life conscientious objector who, in spite of his outspoken pacifism, served in the army during World War II, enduring harassment, and worse, at the hands of his fellow soldiers before eventually risking his own life, as a medic, to save a large number of wounded men at Okinawa. It’s a beautiful story, for sure, but Gibson uses it as a template on which to layer unnecessarily gruesome images of gory, mangled and dismembered bodies on the battlefield, much as he lingered on the flayed flesh of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, distorting, in that film, the central message of Christianity (i.e., love) through an unhealthy sadomasochism (to be fair, both Braveheart and Apocalypto were similarly filled with carnage). Then again, in many of the films in which he starred, Gibson allowed himself to be tortured, as well: think of Riggs in Lethal Weapon or Porter in Payback, to name but two examples. Indeed, the Messiah didn’t just die for our sins, he suffered in unspeakable agony so that we might … watch and take our pleasure?
Here we get Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) as Doss. He gives a wonderful performance as a man who needs no physical torture to make him suffer, so consumed is he by childhood demons that have led him away from violence. In the roles of his parents, both Rachel Griffiths (Mammal) and Hugo Weaving (Strangerland), always fighting, do a great job illuminating the root causes of Doss’s pacifism (he’s also deeply religious). When war breaks out, however, Doss feels compelled to do his duty, and before long we are in basic training, something we’ve seen in countless films before, yet still one of the best parts of the movie, thanks to a winning turn by, of all people, Vince Vaughn (The Internship) as the drill sergeant. No one believes that an able-bodied young man such as Doss would choose not to fight, and so they make his life a merciless hell. Yet he remains true to his principles, and so before long joins his fellow grunts in the crucible of war, where his once-mocked insistence on saving life, rather than taking it, leads to majestic on-field heroics. After which he becomes a talisman for his unit, used as a good-luck charm for the next foray into the slaughter of battle. It’s a paradox as profound as the excess of blood thrown at the camera in the name of peace.
If you must see it, then, see it for the first half, where almost everyone shines, including Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies) as the young nurse whom Desmond marries. But what is it all for, if not to inadvertently glorify the very violence spurned by the main character? Our side prays to its God while the villainous “Japs” pray to theirs. Surely a film about peace would eschew the simplistic bad-guy/good-guy dichotomy on display here. But no; we even get the mandatory scene of ritual seppuku that so often seems de rigueur whenever the Japanese appear in a Hollywood wartime movie. This time, we even see the beheading. Thank you, Mr. Gibson, for perverting a nearly flawless opening with the final bloody mess. You clearly still have some demons of your own to work out.