“On some not-so-hard-to-read level, the film is conceived and presented as an act of atonement,” suggests Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman. “The film takes its title from a patch of battleground in Japan, at the top of a 100-foot cliff, that’s all mud and branches and bunkers and foxholes, and where the fight, when it arrives (one hour into the movie), is cataclysmic in the terrifying shock and gruesomeness of its horror.” And “at the center of this modern hell of machine-tooled chaos and pain, there is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a soldier who refuses to carry a gun because it is against his values. He’s a conscientious objector who acts as a medic…. He’s on the front lines, in the thick of it, without a weapon to protect him, and the film exalts not just his courage but his whole withdrawal from violence.”
Hacksaw Ridge “extols pacifism with one hand while making war brutally exciting with the other,” finds Alonso Duralde at TheWrap. “One can imagine a version of this film being made in the 40s or 50s (complete with a tag line like ‘The Soldier They Called “Coward”… Was the Bravest of Them All!’), but then we’d be deprived of the crazily over-the-top ultra-gore and ultra-violence of Gibson’s vision. To its credit, the battle sequences in Hacksaw Ridge are breathlessly kinetic, with soldiers getting randomly mowed down from all sides at completely unexpected moments. For all of the thrills and brilliantly paced carnage, the bloodshed is sometimes so exhilaratingly overdone that it’s like watching a blood-soaked Monty Python sketch. Still, working with editor John Gilbert (The Bank Job) and cinematographer Simon Duggan (Warcraft), Gibson has created some of the most breathtakingly exciting wartime footage in recent memory.”
These scenes “are a staggering example of controlled operatic violence,” agrees Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage, “something in between the surrealist horror of Tsukamoto’s Fire on the Plain and the poetic grit of Saving Private Ryan. The dizzying common thread of almost all of Gibson’s films has been his ability to shoehorn his pious Christianity into such scenes of utter madness…. Hacksaw Ridge is a riveting, maddening, and singular return for the director.”
For the Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney, “the film’s firm anchor, its moral compass and its considerable heart is Garfield, inhabiting his frontline position as both character and performer with extraordinary fortitude and grace.”
“It’s been a while since we’ve seen a war movie this one-sided, this unconcerned with acknowledging the humanity of the combatants on both sides,” writes Jessica Kiang at The Playlist. “Even more fundamentally, there’s the thorny question of what this ‘true story’ leaves out, because no true story can ever be the whole truth. No matter how much one’s personal principles may line up with those of Doss, there are incredibly difficult moral quandaries his admirable stance sets up, but the film does not contend with any of those.” In the end, “this tale of real-life heroism seems less a celebration of humanist convictions than a glorification of religious intransigence and a declaration of the moral superiority of the faithful over the faithless.”
“Perhaps, ultimately,” suggests Screen‘s Fionnuala Halligan, “it isn’t Gibson’s filmic fury that distresses so much, but the fact that it’s all true: from the battleground’s height to the repeated attempts to take it, to the number of men who died and who Doss saved, and, ultimately, to a man’s faith, tenacity and belief in God… Hacksaw Ridge returns to the themes which have professionally and personally motivated 60-year-old Gibson for his entire life; he’s never been subtle, but he’s certainly effective when it comes to delivering his heartfelt message.”
For more on the real-life Desmond Doss, see Rebecca Hawkes in the Telegraph. Hacksaw Ridge has premiered Out of Competition in Venice and opens wide in early November.
Updates: “Not that the story was light on religiosity in the first place,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, “but Gibson doesn’t stint on Christian symbolism, bringing stigmata-like wounds, a descent beneath the earth and a sun-haloed ascension to his hero’s personal Passion on the field of battle. War is hell, but through Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson finds a way to harrow it.”
“Gibson has produced another bombastic, crowd-pleasing, and obviously blood-soaked movie which expertly glorifies that which its hero was against,” writes John Bleasdale at CineVue.
Updates, 9/5: Glenn Kenny dispatches to RogerEbert.com: “Hacksaw Ridge is a not-inconsiderable achievement for Gibson, a war film so stolid in is values—both aesthetic and the other kind—that it marks the actor/director as fully ready and able to take up the banner of Hollywood’s Last Classicist whenever Clint Eastwood decides to give it up.”
“Hacksaw Ridge is not subtle, but it is brutally effective,” writes Time Out‘s Dave Calhoun, “and it contains some of the most justifiably violent battle scenes ever committed to film. Before we get there, it’s a more traditional movie. We watch as Doss dodges his violent, alcoholic war veteran father (Hugo Weaving) at home in rural Virginia and meets his future wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse, in the film’s most corny scenes. It’s only when Doss joins the military, faces a possible court-martial, and later heads to Japan that the contradiction of his being a soldier and refusing to touch a weapon properly kicks in and gives the film proper dramatic weight.”
“The Japanese troops swarm the ridge, presented as cold-blooded killers for the most part,” writes Katherine McLaughlin at Little White Lies. “Their icky stereotypical portrayal doesn’t sit right within this tale of pacifism and faith.”
Gibson is “great with space, and makes sure you know exactly where each character is at any given moment, even though everyone’s always on the move,” writes Indiewire‘s Dana Harris. “He’s also kind of sadistic. He makes sure you know every different way a bullet, bomb, or grenade can mangle a body. I mean, there are gruesome war scenes, and then there are gruesome war scenes from the director of The Passion of the Christ.”
Updates, 9/6: “I don’t think you could tell this story properly or honestly without being forthright about the horrors of the Pacific Theater, and as Gibson dramatizes them, they put Doss’s actions in jaggedly sharp perspective,” writes Time‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “Garfield’s Doss, at first a scrawny, guileless farmboy, becomes as relentless as a terrier: Even after his battalion retreats, he keeps pushing forward to drag as many wounded men as possible to safety, lowering them down one by one from a 100-foot ridge on a rope knotted into a series of dubious-looking loops. The prayer he keeps repeating—’Please, Lord, help me get one more’—doesn’t even sound aggressively religious. It’s more an incantation, the automatic mantra of a man living desperately in the moment.” Ultimately, “whether you or I like Gibson as a person or not, it’s no one’s place to deny his reach.”
And Mike Fleming Jr. interviews Gibson for Deadline.
Update, 9/8: Dan Thawley talks with Garfield for L’Uomo Vogue. Regarding Gibson: “I think he’s just a great team captain. He’s all heart, all love, he wears it on the outside of his skin. He’s a wonderful man.”
The 2016 fall film festival indexes: Venice, Telluride, and Toronto.