Only a man who loathes homosexuals can get such a hard-on for beautiful young men in extremis. Add long hair soaked in blood, mouths open in a combination of pain and ecstasy that Teresa of Avila can understand, and skeptics frozen in truly-he-was-the-son-of-God epiphanies — presto, a Mel Gibson picture. A lethargic, lysergic, and literal account of the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, Hacksaw Ridge pulls the usual Gibson trick, which peaked in 2004’s skin flick The Passion of the Christ, of using sadism to mythologize a man of peace. Only after a strong, insistent beatdown can Jesus the Nazarene and Private Desmond Doss earn the trust of followers. It is, to put it mildly, a strange way to think and live, but no one said being Mel Gibson is easy, and if that’s what a man’s gotta do to earn six Academy Award nominations after years of alcoholic rants, then so be it.
Noting how audiences responded last November to Hacksaw Ridge‘s first third would’ve made a decent case study in tracing the purported evolution of American taste. To emphasize Doss’ hayseed antecedents, Gibson turns every person, piece of furniture, and animal in Lynchburg, Virginia into Rufus Cornpone; cameraman Simon Duggan bathes scenes in a ghastly light. It looks like Song of the South by people who have spent the fifty years imagining how wonderful that film must have been and what a pity Disney removed it from circulation. Motivated to enlist following the American declaration of war on Japan, Doss (Andrew Garfield) faces the wrath of his daddy (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of the Great War who’s seen enough killin’ but is not above beating his wife. But Doss takes the Good Book to heart: doing his duty also means taking Thou shalt not kill seriously, a stricture no less onerous than waiting for marriage to screw his betrothed Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). Because Hacksaw Ridge is a Mel Gibson picture, however, Eros and God make an ungainly peace: Dorothy paper clips her mug shot in Doss’ copy of the Bible, assuming he masturbates while reading from the Song of Solomon.
To set up the conflict and introduce a gallery of hackneyed stereotypes, Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s script drops Doss into basic training, where drill sergeant Howell gets the men to crawl through barbed wire and mud, scale walls, tie knots (attention: foreshadowing!), and march with rifles. But Doss, a Jehovah’s Witness, can’t touch his weapon, nor can he train on Saturdays, the Sabbath. This gets him a number of loud lectures from the chain of command, climaxing with a foiled court martial: his father, using his military contacts, gets him assigned to medic in the Pacific theater. I should note that in the easy part of the drill sergeant, a guaranteed locus of attention in movies from Lou Gossett, Jr. to R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, Vince Vaughan is bug-eyed and awful, an obvious blowhard who fools no one for a minute, unable to shock Knight and Schenkkan’s moronic dialogue to life.
When the action shifts to Okinawa and Gibson can lick his chops filming the mauling and vaporizing of men in combat, Hacksaw Ridge earns its title and at least settles into a recognizable shape: death porn. Some of the grisliest deaths ever filmed too: bullets rip through helmets, boots step on entrails, grenades separate limbs, yawn; it’s realism you can buy anywhere these days. Doss saved several members of his squad by tying thick rope and lowering them down a ravine to waiting soldiers, but the way Gibson films it Garfield could be learning to tie his shoes. At least the violence turns Gibson on; I could hear him struggling to stay awake during Garfield’s chance for an Oscar clip: confessions in the foxhole, during which Doss remembers his daddy beatin’ up his mama while he stood in the way cryin’. To Gibson this is psychology. Never mind: we’re back to bullets and bayonets again, with American soldiers, thanks to Japanese flamethrowers, turned to turkey bacon by an enemy that stays resolutely within the American propaganda tradition of snarling Nipponese yelling bonzai!.
This farrago would be tolerable if Gibson hadn’t directed Garfield to imitate an anguished q-tip. The mystery that Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t address concerns why the U.S. Army allowed Doss to keep his rather stunning head of hair, which Garfield gels with what is apparently the blood of his enemies. Thick, protein-rich, nutty Australian beefcakes like Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey have less to do and sport regrettable hair. As soon as Bracey’s captain says, “Let’s go to work” in the final third, we know we got twenty more minutes of fricasseed and skewered Americans before Doss, like Russell Crowe’s good centurion in Gladiator, is lifted to heaven, or, rather, a medivac, on a morphine-induced cloud while Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score mimics flights of angels singing him to his rest. Before this aborted anointment of the sick Gibson films another sacrament: soldiers drenching Doss in baptismal waters, ostensibly to wash off the muck. He’s a man now. Pacifist or combatant, it’s all the same for Gibson: you’re worthless if you don’t have a man’s brains under your fingernails. He would know. God loves even the worst of His creatures.