Many directors have complex thematic obsessions that they return to in every film, analysing them from unique angles that help explore these themes in a new light each time. Mel Gibson, on the other hand, has a straightforward love of religion and historical ultra violence – and he definitely doesn’t need any of that artsy fartsy nuance to explore these themes either. After a decade mired in controversy following his last directorial effort Apocalypto and the entire “sugar tits” debacle, he has triumphantly returned behind the camera for yet another tale of religious redemption and the relationship between faith and violence.
Hacksaw Ridge is an entirely unlikely proposition; it is a film about pacifism, starring a Jewish actor in the lead role, directed by one of Hollywood’s foremost purveyors of excessive onscreen brutalities – who has repeatedly made anti-Semitic slurs in the past. Hacksaw Ridge may be a very calculated effort for Gibson to usher himself back in to the Hollywood elite that have very publicly shunned him in the past decade, but when the end result is this emotionally engaging and downright exhilarating, Gibson’s awards baiting intentions are all but irrelevant. This may be yet another movie about the atrocities of the Second World War. But Gibson’s eye for blood curdling images of battle, an ensemble cast firing on all cylinders and the best exploration of the relationship between faith and violence in his films to date ensure this isn’t any old run of the mill prestige picture.
The movie is effectively split into two halves; the first is the standard biopic, whilst the second is when Gibson lets all hell break loose and depicts war in the most violent way imaginable. For a man who famously recreated the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as a torture porn splatter fest, it goes without saying that the end result delivers some of the bloodiest images the genre has ever seen – at least in a mainstream production. Many have complained about the melodramatic and overtly cliched nature of the movie’s first half but hanks to the likeable nature of the cast, it becomes a pleasure to see the expected narrative beats play out. This is helped in particular by a strong Andrew Garfield performance that perfectly encapsulates the good humoured, good natured ideals of Desmond Doss; Garfield’s boyish appearance is deceptive, as the quiet intelligence of the character he portrays couldn’t be more different from his naive mannerisms.
As well as strong performances from Teresa Palmer and Hugo Weaving, as Doss’ wife and alcoholic father respectively, we have a completely unexpected stand-out performance from Vince Vaughn. Vaughn is without a doubt one of the most insufferable screen personalities of the last quarter century and the revelation that he is portraying a character reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket will lead to initial groans and complaints of miscasting. Amazingly, he not only manages to land the laughs (more than he has ever managed elsewhere), but he also brings an element of nuance to a fairly tired character archetype. You heard it right folks, Vince Vaughn is not only good in this, but he delivers a nuanced performance.
Hacksaw Ridge may be overstated in its conversations about the conflicting natures of faith ,and mankind’s constant struggle to fight in every war it is faced with. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t intelligent; it takes as many historical liberties as any other documentary, yet the end result appears to be well researched and respectful to every character involved – no matter how antagonistic. This may not be a strong awards contender, but as a perfect directorial comeback vehicle for Mel Gibson, this is well worth the decade long wait following the nihilistic mayhem of Apocalypto.