Trust Mel Gibson, that maestro of the sadomasochistic, to create a movie that is one part Norman Rockwell-esque love letter to 1940s rural America, one part military courtroom drama, and two parts a war-is-hell mugging that seems to be attempting to mash Hieronymus Bosch into the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
Despite his reported anti-Semitic heritage and well-documented rages against girlfriends and arresting officers, Braveheart and Apocalypto leave no doubt that he can direct a heckuva action flick. Even the movies he doesn’t direct show him being beat up and tortured in virtually every one. And his Passion of the Christ is, without doubt, the greatest SM movie ever made. His predilections are as obvious as Tarantino’s foot fetish and Walt Disney’s obsession with round, smooth, rosy, cartoon butts (the original Walt, not the present corporation).
After a ten year “time out,” Gibson chose to return to the director’s chair with an old-fashioned bio-pic of Desmond Doss, the first Conscientious Objector in history to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his remarkable rescue of seventy-two wounded soldiers during the WWII battle of Okinawa — despite his refusal to even touch a gun. And if you thought that last sentence was a major spoiler, you don’t know Jack about Mel.
But first he lulls you into a nice stupor with the prologue-ish story of how Doss grew up in the Appalachians with his WWI-traumatized father (a customarily excellent Hugo Weaving), his long-suffering but loving mother (the customarily excellent Rachel Griffiths), and his saintly girlfriend (the uncustomarily angelic Dorothy Schutte). I was shaken awake when Doss finally decides to join the Army to heal rather than kill, because his drill sergeant is ably and welcomely played by Vince Vaughn, of all people.
Then the film marches to a section that could be called “A Few Bad Men,” as the Army court-martials Doss to force him to fight. It’s well done, but obviously a prelude to the main course: the Battle of Okinawa and Doss’ inspiring accomplishments at the title location – as well as Gibson’s stunning, even staggering, depictions of a war that takes no prisoners, leaves no limb unperforated, no flesh left unshredded, no uniform left unbroiled, and no body left unbloodied. It was an impressive feat of filming and editing that I fully expected and appreciated.
Even so, Hacksaw Ridge’s overly virtuous portrayal of women and stereotypical depiction of the Japanese (including a climatic, predictably graphic, depiction of a seppuku ritual) leave little doubt of the director’s familiar limitations. Still, if you’re looking for a mash-up of idyllic romance, military legalities, and full brunt, in your face, WWII Army-geddon, rest assured that if you go see Hacksaw Ridge, all Mel will break loose.