I have really enjoyed Gibson’s films for their transgressive undercurrents. The Passion of the Christ flew in the face of comfortable progressive notions that religion was dead and boring. Apocalypto (probably Gibson’s best film) dared to offer an alternative, though no less historically grounded vision of pre-European peoples and colonialism. At the same time it’s a prophetic mirror held up to the industrializing, murderous tendencies of our own society. Hacksaw Ridge is a post-Obergefell fable about a religious objector who draws strength from his beliefs. To his companions, he’s a walking contradiction: a gung-ho soldier who won’t touch a weapon. This is undoubtedly the most violent movie about a pacifist ever made and I’m still not sure whether it succeeds. That’s not to say it’s bad. Desmond Doss’s story is certainly one worth immortalizing. The guy both refused to defend himself and to retreat and he still saved 75 people by himself. But for all that, the film isn’t really about the power of nonviolence, it’s about a guy who believes something really strongly and how he overcomes stigmatization and difficulty to stay true to his beliefs, and those around him end up inspired by it.
The dominant style of war films, particularly WWII pictures, has been one of cold detachment. The mechanical, casual snuffing out of human life by men “just doing a job” has successfully horrified moviegoers for going on twenty years, since Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan defined the documentary-esque tone of the contemporary war film. It’s a largely music-less hell of dirty randomness and shaky cameras, the fog of war scattering human life. This is not Gibson’s vision. His camera is steady and the violence is carefully choreographed to shock and horrify–like executions in Final Destination or Mortal Kombat. He has shifted the WWII film away from docudrama to gross-out horror flick. The characters are unreal comic-book stereotypes, created from the beginning to be chewed up by machine gun fire in so many interesting ways. The Japanese soldiers are demons who seem to live only to kill in the most horrifying ways possible (this is a defensible depiction, however–just as rooted in history as Gibson’s earler films.)
It’s clear that Gibson doesn’t want the docu-drama sheen to drown out more immanent, human experience of evil. He wants the spiritual battle at the forefront, with the focus on intimate evil and human fears rather than lives crushed by the unfeeling inevitable wheel of war. The battlefield is a lot like classical depictions of hell, with can’t-look-away bodily mutilations and eye-bulging screaming.
It’s not that this is a bad way to go about depicting the essence of evil and its struggle against good, it’s just not clear who wins. I don’t mean to say that there isn’t deep reflection here, it’s just all about the nature of evil instead of good. Doss’s pacifist beliefs center around his father, a man at once repulsed, fascinated, and even addicted to the violence that took his comrades’ lives and compels him to beat his wife and children. Gibson spends a lot of time on him, perhaps in an effort to wrestle with his own demons. He’s a pitiable character and a dominating one. At a dinner table scene he blubbers about how his friends’ gruesome deaths in World War 1 and we see the subsequent battle scene through his eyes, not his son’s. It’s clear that Gibson sees himself in the old man, and wants his hero to overcome all this, but without a correspondingly effulgent vision of the good, the horror overwhelms and we don’t really escape Doss’s father’s tormented, confused vision of the world. The very last scene is a potential exception that comes very close to providing this. A wounded Desmond clutches his Bible while the Japanese commander in his bunker commits seppuku–dying by the sword he lives by. It’s a good scene, but one that doesn’t quite overcome the emotional toll of the preceding battle. Somehow his violence still feels stronger than Desmond’s peace, probably due to the special directorial attention given to the former at the expense of the latter. Other films about nonviolence (Peter Weir’s Witness and Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line most notably) managed to marry the horrific with the tranquil in a way that recommends the way of peace more strongly.
And yet there were people in my theater clapping for someone saving lives, something that the innumerable superhero films of the past few years have conspicuously failed to do. So Hacksaw Ridge is not a bad film nor is it a dishonest one. But it’s one that would have benefited from more focus on what compels people to believe rather than just the compelling force of belief. Gibson’s own demons intrude a bit too much on Doss’s spirit and the audience left more rattled than inspired. Assaulting the gates of hell is more inspiring with the heavenly host at your back.