Friday, 25 November 2016

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)



In no uncertain terms, I don’t have the will nor the intestinal fortitude to ever consider joining the military. I’m a proper soft lefty that sees all life as sacred and not worth ending over what are usually rather petty squabbles, and the very thought of killing another person for any reason makes me incredibly uneasy. However, that doesn’t mean that I hold any ill will towards those who fight in my place. I may have my issues with the higher-ups who send them out, usually for the reasons why certain governments see fit to get involved in war, but I have nothing but respect for those who do the fighting themselves. Not that cinema seems to share that respect, though, as more times than not, modern military cinema goes for the murky and moralistic approach that is meant to make us question just whose lives are being affected, be it through death or otherwise. So, with noted firebrand Mel Gibson returning to the director’s chair, how does today’s war film turn out? This is Hacksaw Ridge.


The plot: Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), out of a sense of civil duty, enlisted in the Army as a combat medic to fight in World War II. The only problem is that, as a devout Christian, he refused to learn how to fire or even touch a weapon. His stance as a conscientious objector brought him into conflict with his commanding officers, and the U.S. military overall, who viewed him as nothing more than a coward. However, when he was finally brought onto the field at the Battle of Okinawa, he would go down in history as one of America’s greatest war heroes.

Rather than just start out with my usual rundown of the cast listing and highlight individual performances, first I want to look at the cast as a whole and within context. The cast is full of recognizable names from the last couple decades worth of cinema, except it feels like audiences and critics alike have largely written most of them off as either failed potential or last since past their glory days. Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh; doubtless, some of these names will be familiar, but not necessarily for top-notch material (at least, not nowadays). Hell, even the younger actors like Luke Bracey, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer and even Andrew Garfield himself have all had rather shaky experiences in the world of cinema. I can’t be the only one disappointed that Garfield is no longer playing Spider-Man, considering how well he did the last two times he did so. Basically, this feels like an entire cast of people whom the world at large has written off by this point, all of whom give damn good reason why they shouldn’t be. It is astounding how consistent the cast is here, with everyone right down to the smaller roles pulling their respective dramatic weights. From Vaughn’s awesome turn as the drill sergeant to Bracey’s surprisingly smooth performance as the standoffish fellow soldier, even down to Weaving’s nuanced take on the legacy of war and its effects, everyone here gives a truly commendable effort.

And then there’s Andrew Garfield, who is probably given the most difficult character to work with out of the lot, not to mention of the year. Now, on the surface, this is a difficult task because Garfield himself doesn’t have the greatest history when it comes to Southern accents; anyone who has sat through Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks and survived can tell you that. However, he does reasonably well with the dialect. Even more difficult, however, is the character in and of itself; especially in the earlier scenes, his dialogue can come across like something Thomas Harris would come up with as opposed to anything morally righteous. However, he manages to pull the same magic trick that Taron Egerton did back with Eddie The Eagle times a hundred, because not only does he imbue the character with the right amount of sincerity to ward off any unsettling vibes in his wording but also makes the character wholly commendable through his mannerisms and the fact that you can tell that this character, and by extension the actor, is being 100% honest about his views and his beliefs.

This film is essentially split down the middle in terms of the main action: The first half plays out like a religious drama, focusing on Desmond’s beliefs and how they clash with those of the military at large, while the second half focuses on the war itself, in particular the harrowing images of the Battle of Okinawa. Now, this ends up resulting in a film that is over two hours long, so little old “guy with little to no attention span” over here should naturally feel a bit bored with this one. But no, this is an extended run time that actually carries itself. The pacing here is pretty consistent throughout, and it helps that it is able to convey both sides with equal vigour. The war scenes are dark, depressing and amazingly well blocked in terms of action, and it makes the preceding scenes have that much more weight behind it because we saw how much Desmond had to do in order to even get there, let alone accomplish what he does on the battlefield.

I have gone on record saying that modern Christian cinema, overall, has been pretty friggin’ dire. For a genre all about moral absolutes and the power of faith, all they have managed to do so far is show people whose morals are absolutely broken and how blind faith is apparently more important than literally anything else, even common sense. Now, this film has similar notions of religious persecution but, unlike more recent attempts, this is actually warranted. Rather than going with the standard “all atheists are assholes” tactic, it instead frames the persecution against the military, during a time when suffering from PTSD (or shellshock, as it was known) was grounds for execution if it interfered with one’s ability to fight, which was almost guaranteed. Granted, that means that there is that same irksome feeling that I’ve come to associate with Christian films, except here that drama ends up leading to genuine catharsis and affirmation of faith that, quite frankly, Christian audiences have deserved to see on screen for far too long now. It may feel strange to admit this, but the guy who once made an extended Jesus torture porn flick is now leading the pack in terms of religiously moral cinema. I’d be more shocked if I wasn’t already shocked by insanely moving and touching this film is when both sides come together, creating a narrative of the power of faith that past pretenders haven’t even gotten close to.

All in all… holy shit, this is amazing. The cast is full of people trying to convince the world to take them seriously (either for the first time or after many years of being sub-par) and doing a tremendous job at it, the writing combines uplifting conveyances of faith and traumatizing visions of war and bloodshed to create a genuinely fulfilling portrayal of how a man’s faith made him into a war hero, and the direction shows that Gibson is also someone who has been written off despite having all the talent required. Also, bonus points for letting a slew of Australian actors get their chance to shine. After so much waiting and wading through horrifying material, we finally have a commendable Christian film that has gotten a wide release; things are starting to look up. It ranks higher than Captain America: Civil War, as this film matches outstanding action with some incredibly poignant writing; I may love that film, but I’d be lying if I said I cared about any aspect of it outside of the action beats looking back on it. However, for as affecting as this is, I get the feeling that this will likely hit harder for those who hold their religious leanings closer to their chest; as such, the simple yet highly effective storytelling of Anomalisa wins out for how it affected me personally.

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