A distinct blend of cornball sincerity and perverse ultra-violence, Hacksaw Ridge is the kind of thing that could only come from the mind of Mel Gibson. He’s a man out of time: inspired, square, and completely out of his mind. In form and content, movies like Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ manage to convey a rigidly old-fashioned sensibility while bursting with obsessed mania.
So it doesn’t come as a surprise that this touched visionary has found a way to turn a soft-spoken pacifist’s biography into a viscera-soaked nightmare. For the last third of its runtime, Hacksaw Ridge becomes the kind of war picture that went out of fashion during Vietnam: a rousing and disgusting celebration of the battlefield.
But Gibson’s appeal goes beyond retrograde deviance; he’s a master of spatial relationship and onscreen action. The Battle of Okinawa is staged simply but effectively. Placing the Americans on the left of the frame and the Japanese on the right, he imbues guerrilla warfare with geography so that we’re always aware of who’s where and how much territory either side is gaining or losing at any moment.
That coherence is all the more confounding in the face of Gibson’s almost comic fixation on mutilated bodies and shredded limbs. For a movie about a contentious objector, Hacksaw Ridge is bafflingly devoted to the thrill of violence. But Gibson finds common ground with his movie’s peacenik protagonist; after a commanding officer questions the kid’s sanity, he beams an uneasy smile. “I never claimed to be sane.” Fair enough. Honest lunacy never goes out of style.
Hacksaw Ridge. Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenklan. Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, and Vince Vaughn. Opens in Kansas City November 4, 2016.