Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge has a lot riding on it. It marks the return of controversial filmmaker Mel Gibson to directing, it’s a story that many have tried to put on the big screen for decades, it’s been receiving rave early reviews, and its strategically poised at the start of Oscars season.

Desmond Ross (Andrew Garfield) is a devout Seventh-day Adventist, which prevents him from harming another being and renders him a conscientious objector. He and his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) live with their mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and their father Tom (Hugo Weaving), who is an alcoholic clearly suffering from his time in the First World War. After helping a man who’d be pinned under a car get medical treatment, Desmond meets Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a nurse that he’s instantly smitten with. After Hal enlists in the army against the wishes of their father, Desmond decides that he also should enlist, intending to serve as a field medic that would never have to touch a gun. However, things don’t work that smoothly in the army, and Desmond encounters opposition to his beliefs at all levels of the military, fighting his own battle before he’s even given permission to serve his part in the war.

For all the hype and opinion around Hacksaw Ridge, perhaps it's best to first address its issues. For a start, there’s an abundance of slow-motion work all throughout, which can come off as pretty heavy-handed stylism. There’s also several moments of surprisingly poor CGI, particularly the explosions and even with things as simple as background compositing. It’s worth noting that the film had significant production challenges, being independently produced by several companies, but in this day and age that’s no excuse for sub-par technical qualms. Though by far the biggest weakness of Hacksaw Ridge is its first act, where it takes us to his childhood, then explains his family situation, explores his enlistment challenges and religious views, all whilst mixing in this extremely ‘classical Hollywood’ love story. It becomes overwhelming and feels like we’re about to watch another ‘this-is-your-life’ rushed Oscars-season biopic. But then everything changes when we’re dumped into the main act; arriving at Hacksaw Ridge, and the contrast between this hour-long cliched opener and the horror that’s about to unfold couldn’t be greater.

The first battle sequence hits you like a brick wall, just as the Saving Private Ryan opener did eighteen years ago - only this time there’s no refuge from nearly an hour of horrific, unbelievably gory action. There’s been a lot of talk about this film glorifying violence, and whilst Gibson might be overly ambitious with his slow-motion coverage and CGI fireballs, anybody that could consider what unfolds as ‘glorious’ needs to have their head checked. This main body of the film is incredibly visceral, it’s where Hacksaw Ridge finally comes together and decimates you with some of the most intense war-scenes ever put to the screen. Subtlety is not a word that should ever be associated with this film but the battle sequences are damn effective.

However, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t exactly break new ground for the war film genre, in fact it fits in closer with the massive Hollywood war-romance classics of yesteryear than it does to almost any equivalent modern war film. In that regard, Teresa Palmer’s performance feels a bit like a really toned-down Scarlett O’Hara and Rachel Griffiths epitomises the grieving mother who’s family has been torn apart by war. Andrew Garfield is superb in the leading role, and brings gently-voiced compassion to Desmond.

Luke Bracey plays the typical douche-bag semi-antagonist that typically roams the barracks of these sorts of films, but at least it’s a whole lot better than his role in the Point Break remake. Sam Worthington is pretty dry as Captain Glover but he doesn’t receive much screen time, whereas Vince Vaughn makes the most of his role as the stern Sergeant Howell, weaving in just the right amount of humour to what is his most serious performance to date. Hugo Weaving was by far the standout of the film, and whilst he’s only really on-screen in the opening act, his performance as the clearly conflicted, demoralised alcoholic father is up there with some of his extremely difficult to beat previous roles. It was also hilarious to have good ol’ Richard Roxburgh appear briefly as a psychiatrist, trying to hide all the charisma and charm that he has behind a questionable moustache. I see you there Roxburgh...

Hacksaw Ridge might not be fully deserving of the incredible praise it’s receiving - particularly due to a handful of technical issues/stylistic choices and a dreary opening act - but the performances, incredible battle sequences and the heroics of Desmond T. Doss all make this well worth a viewing.

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