A decade out of play, everyone’s favorite one-man-circus of a filmmaker Mel Gibson remains a wily, spirited, and altogether untactful filmmaker bearing a murderous sensibility for lacquering his traditionalist moralities (not quite the same as American conservative moralities, mind you) in his almost unblinkingly erotic fetish for violence. Which is all well and good, and Hacksaw Ridge comes alive in fits and starts. But Gibson’s return from director jail has a perverse moral paradox at its core, and Gibson – probably assuming this is his only chance to return to the A-list – handles the material too cleanly, too respectably, and with too much pristine professionalism to unpack the eccentricities and thorns of the subject matter. There’s a philosophical battle at play deep down, but the old fashioned A-picture tone, while largely effective as a from-the-hip war picture, lacks the jagged edges and exploratory digressions to submerge into the knottier nooks and crannies of the film’s situation just begging to be torn into.
There’s a little knottiness, but less so than the material calls for. The subject of the film is real-life military conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a West Virginia good old boy from a devoutly anti-violence family (and headed by an extremely violent patriarch, another fascinating contradiction Gibson is less keen on exposing). Doss’ moral convictions make not enlisting in WWII impossible – he feels spiritually drawn to protecting the lives of his fellow Americans – but he is equally opposed to wielding a gun or harming anyone around him. The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is the feverishly melodramatic tale of Doss fighting for his right to participate in the war. The back-half – feeling slightly like a post-script – is his ascent on Hacksaw Ridge in the battle of Okinawa, as well as his ensuing heroic devotion to rescuing dozens of wounded soldiers. Doss’ actions afforded him the first Medal of Honor ever given to a conscientious objector, and his heroism is the center of a film that tries just too hard to douse everything in a lionizing aura of sublime, histrionic moral validity.
The latter portions of the film do make clear the religious, spiritual gait of Doss’ selfless acts of medical bravery, but that same portion of film revitalizes Gibson’s long-term spiritual devotion to extraordinary and unmitigated dismemberment of the human form. One would like to suspect this contradiction in terms is the reason why Gibson wanted to tell the story in the first place, the central knot he desperately craves to untangle, or tangle further. Certainly, he finds some mileage out of the clash of tones and opinions, but he ultimately blankets the film in a one-size-fits-all atmosphere of played-to-the-rafters melodrama that flattens any possibility of mobilizing the tension at the heart of the film in any productive way. The film’s political opinion – its notional defense of pacifism – is obvious, but its real feelings are, I suspect, both unclassifiable and irreconcilable.
At any rate, the film’s essentially self-contradictory nature has found its ideal translator in Gibson, a most irreconcilable of filmmakers, a man who revels in the viscera and carnage only afforded to modern directors but whose directorial spirit is obviously more at home in the 1940s or 1950s, making films next to Cecil B Demille and Douglas Sirk rather than Martin Scorsese. But Gibson’s rogue element, his joker-among-the-saints sensibility, is too often rendered null and void by the painstakingly endearing tone of the film.
Of course, Gibson does conjure his own contradictions, especially how the earlier, almost self-consciously coy and camera-shy classical half of the film, boasting a cockeyed sort of generousness and sincere romanticism, is trampeled underfoot the hyper-present and extraordinarily vicious onslaught that forms the skeleton of the climactic hour. Theoretically, this clash could undergird a filmic act of self-destruction, a work pulling itself apart with glances in multiple directions, refusing to cohere around a subject who it admits is essentially self-contradictory and thus incapable of being cohered around. But, frankly, I think the film is a little too aroused by its own violence to suggest something so fascinatingly equivocal or deliciously uncertain about its own moral worth. It’s the rare film that is just too ecstatic and passionate for its own good.
Gibson’s work suggests but is unable to follow-up on the thoughts that Doss is a hypocrite, that he is against taking the life of another but self-evidently happy to participate in a national act of severe bloodletting. He has no problem, for instance, carrying a fellow soldier to safety while the latter man guns down scores of Japanese soldiers, a centerpiece moment of Gibson’s full-frontal filmic assault. While the earlier portions of the film at least pay attention to, if not exactly perking their ears up for, the moral thorns at the center of the film’s very existence, the back half is just Gibson doing Gibson. He’s extraordinarily skilled at self-mimicry, so the film is never less than entertaining, but introducing the essential asymmetries in the narrative only to drown them out with mortar and buckshot only makes the film’s eventual conclusion all the more disheartening.
The final images of the film are wholly antithetical to everything Doss stands for, and Gibson approaches this contradiction with his typical mixture of gung-ho felt-force – plunging head-first into grandiose imagery without truly considering the contradictions underneath – and skepticism wherein we are made to ponder questions the film is not actually willing to seriously engage. The critics of the film have thus far argued that it is self-contradictory, and its defenders have to some extent taken that very internal disagreement as emblematic of the film’s very potency. The cliché, either way, is “the film at war with itself”. My personal position is to agree with the sentiment of the latter, of the value of a film in firm dialectical tension with its own ideas, without actually believing the film achieves this tension. Don’t get me wrong: it warms my heart that some critics have suggested Gibson fulfills this contradiction, that he creates a film that is dialectical, messy, and willing to deface its center by introducing incompatible elements.
But Gibson can barely contain his affection – nay, erection – to be cinematically hell-raising yet again. There’s a potent metaphor in there about how Desmond, semi-pacifist to the nines, actually spiritually gets off on the thrill of combat and being able to save the nearly-dead, deriving his moral worth from violence in a counter-factual and hypocritical way even as he preaches against it. Gibson just doesn’t nail the (im)balance, giving himself a veritable silver platter filled with finely cooked fundamental tensions in American thought, only to smother them in the taste-neutralizing fast-food batter of unmitigated heroism. I’d love to report a self-critical irony in the bloodletting and bottomless viscera of the back-half, but everything seems fairly genuine on Gibson’s part.
In fact, Gibson might be Desmond reborn: while Gibson himself has no reason to hold a weapon and directly take a life, he has no problem dropping himself into a violent filmic world and finding purpose within it, barely hiding his grin at the carnage he can bring unto the world even as he pretends to create an anti-war film. Gibson films with great spirit, performing his task admirably and with enviable efficiency, exactly like Doss, but his film also draws from an unending well of dishonesty. A fascinatingly dialectic film sometimes pokes its head out: feverishly clichéd yet technically up to date, hide-bound in its morality and yet fundamentally amoral, estranged from yet turned-on by violence. But Gibson is more fixated on the perils and lesioning of the physical body than the mind, staging the former with formidable fortitude, and an iron stomach as well. But a film that willfully contradicted itself in the open would be all the more inspired in its ruckus-raising. This internal battle in the film’s moral conscience – probably in Gibson’s – is far more compelling, far nastier, far thornier than the film’s onslaught of carnage, and Gibson does something unthinkable: revealing how timid he actually is by not diving into the divergent and antithetical worldviews at its center.
Gibson is too technically adept a filmmaker to ever make a bad film, and Andrew Garfield is astoundingly good in the lead role, radiating the self-devouring internal tension of a man in an essentially unwinnable and self-instigated situation. Would that the film had been inspired by this sense of quandary, by its own gaps in logic, by its own failures to make sense out of its morality. But the film’s rhythms are somewhat monotone over the long haul, never vacillating with the energy of unwieldy and unwinnable self-disagreement. Would that the film had been more internally self-destructive, more focused on its inability to be summarized or reduced, interested in its essential self-confusion and habit of vandalizing its own political viewpoints. Would that it were, essentially, a confounding mess, but it is just too clean to pave the way to its own moral disjointedness.