Dine-in theaters are a strange phenomenon. Not necessarily a surprising one – the crossroads between film as engaged art and film as passive entertainment is widening by the year, and the corners monopolized by Hollywood are particularly bent toward the ‘entertainment’ avenue. But after watching Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge at the recently-opened dine-in theater near my hometown (there was an online coupon), I’m more well acquainted with the errancy of this venture than I would have ever liked to be. Perhaps a dine-in theater might suit such gobsmacked trash as this year’s Trolls or 2015’s Minions (sorry Josh), but I can’t believe that, during the distribution process, some studio exec at Summit Entertainment could have failed to see how pairing some of the most violent war images ever committed to film with a plate of chicken fajitas and a glass of sauvignon blanc might not work out so well.
Some self-aggrandizing “veteran” film-critic from The New Yorker or something (I honestly forget the magazine I was reading at the time) called Hacksaw Ridge one of the most “vainglorious” films ever made. The reviewer was referring specifically to one scene, where a shell-shocked Andrew Garfield looks up from the corpse of his battle-buddy, glances just to the right of the camera, and asks, “Lord, what is it that you want from me?” And this New Yorker-or-whatever pundit has a point – one can just imagine Mr. Gibson, standing somewhere near or even at Garfield’s eyeline, snapshotting the image of one of Hollywood’s hottest rising-stars calling him God, just begging him for direction. A Variety review says Hacksaw “often feels like an old studio-system platoon movie,” and while I believe the gratuitous violence and cavalier use of slow-motion preclude that sort of antiquated comparison, one can’t deny the “hokey-ness” of Gibson’s fifth feature.
The movie doesn’t even get to Okinawa until over an hour in, and spends the opening Act-and-a-half languishing in small-town Virginia with the picturesque, pastoral backdrop of the American Southeast. Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, the real-life Medal of Honor-winner who saved 75 wounded soldiers on the island of Okinawa in 1945, all without firing a single shot. The film makes a hack-job (I regret nothing) out of Doss’s backstory – the first ten minutes include he and his brother Hal getting into a fight, which ends when Desmond smashes Hal over the head with a brick, nearly killing him. As his parents tend to the boy, Desmond walks, in slow-motion, over to a crocheted biblical tableaux that just-so-happens to be hanging from the wall in his damn hallway. Emblazoned dogmatically on the tapestry is the commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” This convenient realization is explained away by the revelation that the Doss family are devout Seventh Day Adventists, but Desmond takes their faith to the extreme by swearing off all violence.
Hugo Weaving does the film a solid turn as Desmond’s father, Tom. The real tragedy of this film is that Weaving easily delivers one of the best performances of his career, and it’ll inevitably be lost in a star-vehicle for Garfield, who still has an entire career ahead of him. Weaving is all-at-once vulnerable and terrifying as Desmond’s domineering and mournful father. A dinner-table scene between Tom, Desmond, and Hal is the most poignant in the film, and is entirely carried by Weaving’s performance.
Over the course of the First Act, Desmond meets hospital nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), proceeds to softboy the hell out of her, stalk her, and borderline-sexually harass her until she relents and marries him. Immediately after he proposes, Desmond suddenly grows a conscience and decides that he needs to enlist, because he “can’t stay home while all those boys fight and die for me.” He heads off to basic training before the wedding. I don’t blame Garfield for any of this shoddy character development; he’s a fine actor, and does his best with the absolutely uncharacteristic writing, but any pity or rooting interest I might have in this protagonist takes a huge hit from his aggressively pursuant behavior toward Dorothy.
At training camp, when they find out Desmond will not participate in riflery training, Desmond’s unit pummels and mocks him for being a “coward,” culminating in a Full Metal Jacket-type beating in the barracks. Unlike Full Metal Jacket, however, Hacksaw Ridge tidies up the complexities of aggression-training by bestowing upon Doss such a degree of humility and boyish honor that his unit has no choice but to stand by his decision not to fight, eventually coming around to his side and defending him against their CO, who wants to drum Desmond out of the army. Their Drill Sergeant Vince Vaughn (I won’t bother with the character’s name, it’s just Vince Vaughn. Vince Vaughn shouldn’t be credited as an actor for this movie. He didn’t act. He put on a sergeant’s uniform and pretended Andrew Garfield’s name was “Desmond” and yelled at him for a total of forty-five minutes) manifests this change-of-heart with an arc that ties up nicely when Doss later saves Vaughn’s life on the battlefield.
Once the film finally gets to Okinawa (after a deus-ex-machina court-martial scene that would have been utterly indefensible if this wasn’t a true story), Hacksaw Ridge literally unloads a barrage of masturbatory violence that made me cringe in my seat for a full forty minutes. Almost uninterrupted, from just after the midpoint to the climax, the audience is treated to a gory spectacle of machine-gun fire, booming artillery, splintering shrapnel and explosive amputations. The battle for Hacksaw Ridge is more violent than anything in Saving Private Ryan (1999). I’ve never seen on-screen war violence even close to this.
This is where my earlier point about dine-in theaters comes into play: something about sitting in an outrageously comfortable reclining chair, with the smell of oak-aged wines and gourmet hot-wings wafting through the air, watching nameless white actors get blown to smithereens by faceless Japanese extras in the most extravagant ways possible…I don’t like tossing around the word “surreal,” but it was. I was sick to my stomach. I’m never eating a fajita again.
Most of the actors in the film are an utter wash, tossed in without meaningful introductions and killed just as quickly in an effort to ramp up the “stakes,” as if anyone had any doubt that war was hell. Doss is the only character with even an ounce of depth. The true story of Doss is almost more unbelievable than the fiction; Doss survived a grenade explosion and kept working, ferrying more wounded down the ridge and administering aid, while Garfield’s Doss is stretchered off the battlefield after nearly having his leg blown off. But Garfield plays the role with such honesty and charm that, as with most of his performances, you can’t help but sympathize. It is, however, a little strange to see Spider-Man performing more superhuman feats as an ordinary man than he ever did as the web-slinger. Doss smacks grenades away with his bare hands, lifts men twice his size and sprints hundreds of yards with them slung over his shoulders, stays awake for almost forty-eight hours without sleep, and still manages to find time to pray to his pocket Bible.
The slow-motion in Hacksaw is doubtlessly overused, coming in at mawkish moments of pathos and masculine triumph. There’s a scene where the surviving members of Doss’s unit, led by newly-converted Doss-fan Captain Jack Glover (Sam Worthington), charge back over the lip of Hacksaw Ridge, faces contorted into Braveheart-esque war cries, firing their guns directly at the camera to the thunderous tune of orchestral strings. They jerk on their triggers while pulling their best “O-Faces,” pumping their guns victoriously at the camera while…well…uh…yeah…you get the idea. Even if Gibson might never be redeemed, let no one ever accuse the poor man of subtlety, please.
Gibson excels with these simplistic, gaudy narratives of “Good vs. Evil” and “Light vs. Dark.” He eats up Christ imagery and craps it back out in resplendent slow-motion for his audiences to feast upon, tinging it with just a hint of personal flair. Even in films he hasn’t directed but starred in, such as The Patriot (2000), Gibson seems to live for perpetuating an overplayed New Testament allegory. Doss is the perfect Gibson protagonist – uncomplicated, charismatic, God-fearing, and trustworthy. It’s not even necessarily a fault – some movies excel because they are straightforward, dramatic, confident and concise in their structure. But Hacksaw Ridge is so woefully dependent on the Christ narrative while also so determined to flash the juxtaposition of brutal violence with the purity of religious faith, that it’s difficult to discern what point, if any, Gibson is trying to make. War sucks, God is great? That’s one shot of a blood-spattered Bible being thrust into Desmond’s hand as his comrades carry him off the battlefield. There, movie’s over, I just saved Summit $100 million.
The film ends with a shot of Desmond being lifted onto a stretcher and lowered down from the ridge via a pulley system. As he’s lowered downward on a diagonal, the camera cranes beneath the stretcher and begins to move downward, giving the illusion of Desmond’s ascension, arms outstretched in Gibson’s favorite Christ-pose.
God, this movie. I can still smell fajitas.