The story of Desmond Doss is as intense and conflicted as this newest film from director Mel Gibson (The Expendables 3). The main tale, of Doss’ desire to serve in WWII as a medic but not kill, is a timely message about conviction and beliefs in the face of authority. Andrew Garfield (99 Homes) plays Doss well and subtly, bringing to mind Gary Cooper’s award winning role as Sergeant York. Garfield embodies the man and is a pillar of quiet strength amid his struggles and amidst the horrors of the landmark battle that gives this movie its name.
But, as good as Garfield is, his is not the performance that stood out for me. In truth, it is Hugo Weaving (The Dressmaker) as Doss’ father whose arc is most affecting for me. Tom Doss as a damaged WWI vet is a complicated and deeply troubled man. It is because of him, good and bad, that Desmond becomes who he is. While less impactful on screen, Rachel Griffiths (Saving Mr. Banks) as his mother is also a nicely layered influence in his life.
Vince Vaughn (Lay the Favorite), Luke Bracey (Point Break), and, in a surprisingly good turn, Sam Worthington (Everest), as part of Doss’ unit, offer up some important friction points. The troops, in general, are all quite good, but far too many to list. Each manages to get you to care enough to worry for them on the battlefield which is essential for the success of the story.
Also, the script smartly provides insights to Doss by starting early in his life and adding appropriate, if somewhat contrived, flashbacks to show us the genesis and core of his choices. Gibson handles most of the story and the script well. The scenes of home, the pivotal moments of Doss’ life, and the tragedy of Hacksaw from the perspective of the allies are all painfully real.
Where this film becomes a conundrum for me is toward the end when the tides of the battle change. Gibson’s choices during the final scenes of battle make the routing and slaughter of the Japanese soldiers feel justified, even triumphant, which is so counter to Doss’ path that I found it disturbing. This hearkens back to my discussion of John Wick a few days back about how violence is too often celebrated in film. Gibson, to be clear, isn’t celebrating the carnage so much as lingering on it with visual joy through slow motion and other tricks. The effect is to make it feel triumphant rather than horrific… at least it worked that way on me given how the rest of the battles were shown.
From an Oscar’s point of view, I don’t see Hacksaw walking away with any statues. The possible exception may be sound mixing (the story of the work on the soundscape for this film is really pretty amazing), but I think it is a small possibility. This is a good film and an important one for the era we now find ourselves. It is one you should see, despite any of my misgivings about its ultimately confused message.