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In Hacksaw Ridge, Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, an idealistic young man who convinces the army to send him overseas as a medic in the Second World War

Mark Rogers/Summit via AP

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Hacksaw Ridge
Written by
Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan
Directed by
Mel Gibson
Starring
Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn
Genre
Biopic
Classification
18A
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2016

Mel Gibson has a thing for pain. Anyone doubting such a blanket statement can simply glance at his directorial efforts, which are obsessed with carnage (Braveheart), blood (Apocalypto) and suffering (The Passion of the Christ).

Whether Gibson is using violence as a sort of artistic tool for self-immolation – offering his work up for destruction, in absence of publicly owning up to his own vile personal history – is a question best left to psychoanalysts. But there is little argument that the man is fascinated, if not outright obsessed, with tearing the human body apart.

Which makes Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson's first film in a decade, fit easily (if nauseatingly) in the director's wheelhouse. A Second World War movie that wants to both critique conflict and fetishize it, the drama is the most violent American film of the year, to say nothing of the director's own CV.

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Soldiers are burned, shot, stabbed and turned inside out. Guts decorate the battlefield, and blood washes over the screen in torrents.

It is almost as if Gibson is daring his audience to turn away from his opera of barbarity – but perversely, his violence is the only compelling element of Hacksaw Ridge. Perhaps ironically for a war film, the rest of it is mostly a draw.

Before the bodies are splayed, Hacksaw spends its first hour in one of the corniest versions of 1940s America ever put on screen, all Southern stock characters and hammy accents (it doesn't help that Gibson filled his cast with Australian actors, who go big and broad with the American tongue). Gibson's vision of Lynchburg, Va., is drowned in saccharine sunlight and gee-shucks optimism, its smiling and beautiful and ultra-patriotic residents surely what Donald Trump has in mind whenever he urges voters to "make America great again."

And it's here that we meet Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), an idealistic young man who only wants two things in life: to marry his sweetheart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and to serve his country.

Yet there's a hitch: Doss is a faithful Seventh-day Adventist who refuses to touch a weapon – he only wants to help his fellow soldiers, not kill the enemy. Through sheer grit and determination – and much to the initial disgust of his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) – Doss convinces the Army to send him overseas as a medic, which is how he finds himself, Bible at his side, in the gory thick of the Battle of Okinawa.

Which is where the film both intrigues and disappoints. It is impossible to imagine the actual brutality of war, but it is possible to know when something tips over into a level of farcical cartoonishness, and it's here where Gibson the gorehound comes out to play.

It is not enough for the director to illustrate the mayhem with exploded carcasses – he must also highlight the rats feasting on the dead flesh, the limbless torsos being used as human shields, the various body parts flying high in the sky as if the Allies were putting on a grotesque ballet.

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Ostensibly, Gibson is illustrating the strength of Doss's faith in the face of relentless terror, but he mostly just succeeds at testing the limits of his audience – to see just how far we'll go along with his Grand Guignol vision if there's promise of redemption at the other end.

It would be reprehensibly exploitative if it weren't also just so utterly fascinating at the same time. (Less intriguing is Gibson's blunt attempts to shoehorn religious symbolism into the film's corners; one scene toward the end, which places Doss practically on the cross, is especially egregious.)

At least Gibson's cast stays steady in the face of such extremes. As played by Garfield, Doss is a selfless beacon of humanity – though the British actor gives him an overly goofy disposition in the first stretch, which threatens to turn the character into a slightly more charming Forrest Gump.

Palmer, on the other hand, is solid from the start, displaying a charisma that has thus far been buried in such forgettable studio fare as I Am Number Four, Love and Honor and the Point Break remake. And even Vaughn, the sole American in the cast, delivers a surprisingly charming performance, somehow channelling both Full Metal Jacket's R. Lee Ermey and his work in the Adam McKay comedy universe to create a hard-ass like no other.

Yet nothing – not the performances, not the bombastic scenes of battle, not the underlying theme of righteousness – is strong enough to distract from the glee Gibson so obviously takes in the suffering of it all. War is hell, but Hacksaw Ridge sacrifices that truth in favour of something far more insincere.

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