Skip to main content

Have you ever looked into a goat's eyes?

Hacksaw Ridge
(2016)

(SPOILERS) There was probably an insightful, sensitive movie to be made about the World War II experiences of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, but Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge isn’t it. It’s unsurprising that a number of reviewers have independently indulged the wordplay Hackneyed Ridge, an effective summation of the ridiculously over-the-top, emotionally shameless theatrics Mel indulges, turning a story that already fell into the “You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true” camp into “You won’t believe it anyway, because it’s been turned up to 11” (and that’s with Gibson omitting incidents he perceived to be “too much”, such as Doss being shot by a sniper after he was wounded, having given up his stretcher to another wounded man; certainly, as wrung through Mel’s tonal wringer, that would have been the case).


Perhaps Mel should stick to making subtitled features, the language barrier diluting the excruciating lack of nuance or subtlety in his treatment of subject matter. On the other hand, perhaps it’s simply the unfamiliarity of instilling uplift that has called him out. Apocalypto was, after all, a classic action movie, a chase to the death that never let up once it got going, and before it got going was relentlessly grim: powder for the keg. The Passion of the Christ, which I didn’t care for, was undeniably consistent in approach, pace and content; it was exactly the torture porn gospel he intended, for better or worse. Hacksaw Ridge, when we’re finally thrown into the heart of the battle, is a predictable war porn slaughterhouse (anyone familiar with his previous three directorial efforts should be well-prepared), so underlining the confused, conflicted statements Gibson is making, and one might suggest, if one wanted to play cod-psychologist, the confused, conflicted impulses he’s battling within.


The early part of the picture is played out in the sickly, capitalised character beats of an Oliver Stone or Spielberg war picture – I’m thinking the patriotic earnestness of Ron Kovic, or the hometown sincerity of Tom Hanks – lathered with the most cynically treacly score imaginable from Rupert Gregson-Williams, one that attempts out-manoeuvre the most in-your-face of John Willliams’ contributions to those directors. Andrew Garfield, 33 but easily convincing as 23, which makes a change, I guess, is absolutely aw shucks, good ol’ Southern boy too-good-to-be-true, in the lead role; he’s entirely effective, doing exactly what his director wants and hitting those marks with aplomb, but it makes the character entirely flat. That, and the undiluted stream of cheese-infested dialogue. The formative events Desmond encounters are of an entirely cartoonish nature: his adversity to violence as presented by two defining incidents; his rose-tinted romance with nurse Dorothy Schuttle (Teresa Palmer, very good).


So, when he eventually makes it to basic training and reveals his damned conchie colours, it’s taken as read that there’s going to be no sudden retrenchment of approach. If you have a character as undiluted as Desmond, varnishing every element around him is exactly the wrong way to go. Vince Vaughn’s R Lee Ermey-lite drill sergeant provides a bit of light relief at first (and credit to Vaughn, he’s really trying to be convincing in the role, even if he’s hopelessly un-), but the caricatures around him, from Sam Worthington’s captain who becomes a dyed-in-the-woll convert to the Doss cause (Worthington is consistently bland, as per usual, which actually kind of works – someone needed not to be going for it here), to the harshest fellow-enlistee-come-greatest-pal (Luke Bracey – surprisingly good, given how abjectly awful he is in the abjectly awful Point Break remake), simply lay on the clichés.


All of which makes the battlefield carnage something of a relief. There’s much less talking for starters. And Mel’s really in his element. Having spent all this time avowing the man of peace, he can really go to town on the flying entrails and exploding innards that are really what a war film’s all about. There’s the merest flash of Nazi propaganda footage, probably put in just so he couldn’t be seen to be ignoring his Achilles heel (well, one of them), but this being Okinawa, his focus can fortuitously rest on the faceless hordes of brute Japanese, depicted as rampaging multitudes of xenomorphs straight out of the James Cameron movie.


There’s been criticism of the depiction of the Japanese, the few moments of character given to a frightened man Doss attends to and an officer committing hara-kiri. Which is fair to an extent, certainly given the balance the perhaps unlikely Clint Eastwood afforded the Pacific campaign in his two pictures (of which, the Letters from Iwo Jima was far the superior), but it’s also in keeping with a picture that’s relentlessly crude in its depiction of everything, from religious conviction to romantic love to lovingly-captured exploding bodies, dismembered bodies, ignited bodies (Mel loves his flaming Japs). Always remember: if in doubt, bring on the carnage in glorious slo-mo. It’s more edifying, gratifying and downright thrilling that way.


And much of it works: the visceral quality of the battlefield is palpable. But it’s also impossible not to be pulled out of the proceedings by the artlessness of the emotional assault, by that score, by movie-movie moments where, rather than attempting fidelity to the events-as-were, Mel embroiders. Did Desmond really kick a grenade away as if he was scoring the winning goal in the Premiership league final (he did kick it away, but I doubt with such cinematic bravura)? Did he really pull his sergeant to safety on a bit of tarp while the latter gunned down swathes of fiendish enemy, as if he were auditioning for a stunt sequence in The Living Daylights? Mel frequently crosses the line from suspension of disbelief into unintended hilarity, and with it the fabric of the picture is torn asunder (talking of which, the real Doss was one of those who volunteered to go up the ridge and hang the cargo net. As for the reason the Japanese didn’t just cut down it down, rather than being extraordinarily sporting, it appears it was tactical).


Perhaps the apotheosis of this is the scene in which Hugo Weaving (unable to extricate himself from walking, talking cornball functionality his character, but doing his commendable best, Mr Anderson), in his WWI corporal uniform, shows up at his son’s court-martial to deliver a vital letter from his old commanding officer (and all that after Desmond’s had to miss his wedding: the logjam of calamity!) Any lingering doubt that this is really quite a bad movie vanishes entirely at this point (and that’s way before we have the chortlesomely saintly imagery of Doss showering himself clean of all that grime and blood, and his final, Christ-like pose as he descends the ridge on a stretcher: no mention of his wounds leaving him 90% disabled, mind). Hacksaw Ridge is, without insulting the many stellar pictures made during the ‘40s and ‘50s, resorting to a shorthand of character and convenience of plotting that you just shouldn’t be able to get away with today. And in many cases, you can’t, but this is evidently appealing to a certain audience, who are lapping it up.


They’re probably also as wilfully oblivious to the moral complexities of Doss’ decision to be a conscientious co-operator as the film’s director (I should stress here that I’m talking about the depiction of the movie character, rather than forming a conclusion on the actual person). On the one hand, he takes “Thou shalt not kill” to its logic conclusion and is a vegetarian (we’ll excuse the killing of plants, for the sake of argument). On the other, he believes the war was justified, and his acts frequently facilitate the deaths of the enemy (when Sergeant Howell takes out a soldier while Doss effectively acts as a decoy, or the aforementioned bobsleigh incident) or even his own colleagues (how many die aiding Doss in one of his foolhardy/daring rescue bids). Does “Thou shalt not kill” extending to making oneself actively complicit in the killing of others, be it condoning a war as righteous or supporting your comrades on the battlefield? Unfortunately, Mel doesn’t much care to dive into this. Desmond’s father tells him he thinks too much, but this isn’t readily apparent when Captain Glover attempts to impart basic utilitarian principles. But that does, kind of, fit, with a man who cites The Holy Book, which provides all manner of conflicting moral positions, such that it’s no wonder its adherents come out with all manner of conflicting (and sometimes enraged) positions.


I think it would have been quite possible to make a war movie dealing with many of these themes acutely and soulfully. Indeed, it has been done, by Terence Malick nearly 20 years ago now, before he became a parody of himself (The Thin Red Line). Alternatively, and as evidenced by the interview footage at the end of the film, the best vehicle for this story might have been a documentary; the real Doss recounting the incident where he washes the mud out of a blinded soldier’s eyes, who can then see again, carries way more impact than Mel’s dramatisation of the same (there is a doc, where this footage originated, Terry Benedict’s The Conscientious Objector, which is far superior despite doggedly following the biographical doc rule book, complete with annoyingly instructive score). As for Hacksaw Ridge’s place in the Oscar race, it has no business being up for Best Picture, but that’s not exactly unusual. One must content oneself in the knowledge that it could have been much, much worse; it could have been directed by Randall Wallace. 



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Look out the window. Eden’s not burning, it’s burnt.

Reign of Fire (2002) (SPOILERS) There was good reason to believe Rob Bowman would make a successful transition from top-notch TV director to top-notch film one. He had, after all, attracted attention and plaudits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and become such an integral part of The X-File s that he was trusted with the 1998 leap to the big screen. That movie wasn’t the hit it might have been – I suspect because, such was Chris Carter’s inability to hone a coherent arc, it continued to hedge its bets – but Bowman showed he had the goods. And then came Reign of Fire . And then Elektra . And that was it. Reign of Fire is entirely competently directed, but that doesn’t prevent it from being entirely lousy.