Wednesday 25 January 2017

Blood and thunder: "Hacksaw Ridge"

Snowflakes beware. Mel Gibson's comeback film as director opens as it means to go on, with explosions of flame, smoke, blood - and scripture. In Hacksaw Ridge, war is a crucible in which character comes to be tested and forged; not so much a crime against nature, as it was in the greatly more peaceable Terrence Malick's WW2 opus The Thin Red Line, as a natural state - an external expression of man's ongoing inner conflict, one it would take a special kind of soul to negotiate without firing a gun in anger or otherwise going over the top. Amazingly - dare one say miraculously? - Gibson has here found such a soul to throw his not inconsiderable weight behind.

The true-life figure providing the calm at the centre of the film's raging storm is one Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who emerges from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, just about as upright as the lonesome pine. In any almost other cinematic context, a figure like Doss would be presented as just another good ol' boy, but Gibson sees nothing but the good in him. A bright-eyed, bushy-tailed church volunteer, Doss is introduced lifting a car off a mechanic's leg after a jack collapses; he's the perfect gentleman in his courtship of Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), the nurse he meets at the hospital, and he's only too happy to do his bit and follow his older brother off to the front as America ships out for the Pacific.

Early expectation is that Doss will be one more lamb to the slaughter, not unlike the rookie grunt Gibson himself played in Gallipoli back at the beginning of his career, yet this story has a very particular USP. As a practising Seventh-Day Adventist - and strict adherent to the sixth Commandment - Private Doss refused to have anything to do with a gun, and therefore entered the battlefield at Okinawa in 1945 as a medic, with only a knapsack of supplies with which to protect himself and the rest of his troop against the flying bullets and hand grenades. Amazingly - again, one is tempted to say miraculously - he made it through the carnage intact, becoming the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.

That's one hell of a contradiction for any filmmaker (let alone this filmmaker) to wrestle with, yet the film's opening hour comprises a throwback swoon, reconstructing a way of life - and a code of honour - which may have vanished from just about everywhere save the hearts, minds and souls of Republican voters. Desmond's first contact with the armed forces occasions a salty strain of barrack-room comedy, with Vince Vaughn as a belittling sergeant who can't get his head round this new recruit and yet can't help but respect the kid's ability to take a beating without fighting back. (The only place Doss could possibly fit in would be as a punchbag in the infantry's gym: he absorbs every battering, and rights himself for more.)

Violence underpins even the film's lighter moments, in other words. Back at the Doss homestead, the young brothers spend their afternoons smashing each other round the head with bricks; their father (Hugo Weaving, his eccentricities doing an Agent Smith and multiplying with age), a veteran of the First World War, cuts his hand while getting blotto in a cemetery and drips blood on the white memorial stones; Desmond has a vivid split-second recollection of the old man pulling a gun on his missus. For Gibson, the homefront is its own bootcamp, readying this kid for the main event of the second half: the attempt to take the sheer cliff face enshrined in the title.

Here, the director can roll out some of the heavy artillery he previously deployed in The Passion of the Christ: bodies being blown to smithereens, extreme mortification of the flesh. Twenty years on from Saving Private Ryan, Gibson makes Spielberg's depiction of Normandy look like a child's tea party. Painful sights lodge in your brain like shrapnel, shellshock sets in within minutes: one muddy, bloody face comes to resemble another as the battle wears on. What some will find bombastic and repetitious, others will find fascinating - for increasingly, Gibson seems to be using this hour of screen time, sprawling over a few square miles of hellblasted territory, to grapple with ideas of goodness and evil, while marvelling at the fact a holy innocent like Doss ever made it through this carnage alive.

It's Garfield who may sway you. Handed the tricky assignment Jim Caviezel took on the minute he signed up to play Jesus - namely how to make virtue cinematically interesting - he nails it by playing Doss as he once played Peter Parker: as a boy like you and I might know, faced with growing responsibility, yet one armed solely with the touching hope - call it faith - that someone might be watching out for him. On which point, the practical ingenuity by which Doss wrote himself into the military history books - a matter of ropes, pulleys and supreme grace under pressure - pushes a far stronger case for the existence of a higher power than any single frame of Mel's Passion: this kid, evidently, had a spark about him, and you wouldn't have to be the Archbishop of Canterbury to contemplate where that spark came from. The cliff raises Doss closer to the heavens; might he not have had help from above?

For some, Gibson - like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Nate Parker (a new member for diversity-conscious 2017) - will always be an irredeemable member of the Hollywood lepers' club, and these sceptics will here continue to find him proferring a model of agonised masculinity that could well seem a relic of the old world: who needs Mad Mel, at a moment when we have the light-on-his-feet Magic Mike? Yet this bracing test case refuses to allow us to separate the man from the movie, or - to put it another, more favourable way - to imagine this story being told in this way by anybody other than Gibson himself. If ever you wanted to witness a film made defiantly and uncompromisingly in its maker's own troubled, conflicted image, Hacksaw Ridge would be it.

Hacksaw Ridge opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.  

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