In the final months of World War II, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) enlists in the US Army - but refuses to hold a weapon and instead wishes to serve as a Combat Medic. Thrown into heat of battle without a gun to protect himself, Doss faces down man's inhumanity to man and violence on a global scale.
Mel Gibson's directorial efforts have always made for some truly cinematic moments and a real grasp of how to edit, pace and shoot action sequences. Apocalypto is one of the finest chase films ever made and Braveheart's sense of scale and place is unrivalled. Likewise, The Passion Of The Christ made for some unsettling view with its straight-on use of violence and viscera to get its point across. With Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson blends together his previous efforts into a film that offers opposing viewpoints on war and violence, but shot in such a way that's it hard to take away a message from it - other than violence is strong, but faith is stronger.
Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a young Virginian man who enlists in the US Army after the events of Pearl Harbour. His father, Hugo Weaving, is a World War I veteran and alcoholic who regularly beats both him, his brother and his mother whilst screaming about those he lost in battle. Obviously, this has a profound effect on Doss and shapes his world view and, with his mother's piety and religious fervour, he resolves never to touch a weapon or use violence against another. As he makes his way through basic training and introduced to his superiors, namely Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington, it's shown that his code will not waver - even when he's faced with beatings from his own soldiers and a court martial.
This makes up most of the first act and, by far, it's the weakest segment of the film. It's when the film reaches the titular location that it kicks into overdrive and truly begins. There's been countless war movies that have shown the horror and cost of warfare from the perspective of soldiers, so much so that you'd think it's almost impossible to bring something new to the table or shock audiences. Yet, Mel Gibson's use of editing, pacing, camerawork and stunt work is just incredible. It's relentless, with explosions, blasts, guts and gore spilling up every few seconds and a real sense of horror and atrocity to it all. The dichotomy between the slow-paced, almost twee opening act and the sheer brutality of the rest of the film is stark - and maybe that's the point Gibson is driving at.
Garfield's character does, admittedly, come off as pious and holier-than-thou somewhat. The accent does become wearisome in parts, but all that goes out the window when the action kicks off. Vince Vaughn's company sergeant makes the opening act bearable, with his stone-faced delivery of the usual putdowns you'd expect from a character like that. The supporting cast aren't up to much, with Sam Worthington (remember him?) filling out the role of the uncaring lead officer with a reasonable amount of presence. Luke Bracey, meanwhile, plays the hard-ass soldier who eventually softens to Garfield's character whilst Teresa Palmer merely turns up as the love interest and little else. With most Oscar season films, it's usually stellar performances in an OK film - but here, it's OK performances in a film with some of the best action directing you're likely to see in years.
Gibson's work here is one of his best and the assuredness with which he orchestrates the battle sequences - which make up a sizable chunk of the film - is astounding. There's very little in the way of CGI, instead relying good old fashioned squibs and pyrotechnics to make the scenery pop. There's never a point in the battles that you're not fully aware of what's happening. Too often in large-scale sequences such as these, it becomes a mess and it's jarring to follow and even harder to understand what's actually happening. Here, there's a clearly thought-out map of the action and the camera is placed just so to let the audience know where it should be looking. There's no flourishes as such, it's just good craft and skill on display by a director who knows what he's doing.
Overall, Hacksaw Ridge is a skillfully made war film. Although the story and script is anything but subtle, painting in very broad strokes for the most part, it's nevertheless a technical marvel that features some of the most thrilling and tightly-directed war action you're likely to see.