There are a few actors that can exude an old Hollywood vibe in their performances, but it took me a little while in”Hacksaw Ridge” to figure out what exactly it was about Andrew Garfield that emanated such classicism. Then it hit me: it’s his ability to listen. To be present.
As Desmond Doss, a pacifist and conscientious objector who enlists for World War II knowing he cannot pick up a weapon, Garfield is gentility incarnate. With his eyes wide open, the earnestness of the devoted, sabbath-honoring Seventh Day Adventist shines radiantly through. Garfield always takes in more than he takes from a scene. Any given scene is not merely a scene in a biography but an opportunity for his character to learn, lead and love.
Doss’ insistence on a black and white moral universe where violence can never be justified is echoed by director Mel Gibson. He creates a space where the full-throated defense of ideals and veneration of courageous men can glisten without the slightest sense of irony. This World War II movie feels cut from the same cloth as those made by the men who actually fought in it – or can at least remember it. “Hacksaw Ridge” is vintage Hollywood combat manned by one of the few actors who could have prospered in the period.
Yet the tribute to Doss’ nonviolent tenets gets severely undercut by the battle scenes, which luxuriate in gore to a disturbing extent. With different (read: non-heroic strings) music or context, soldiers getting shot through the head or immolated could play as broad comedy. If this carnage is meant to complicated Doss’ worldview or draw a stark contrast between belief and reality, it plays too broad and strays too far from the issue at hand.
This caricatured, simplistic portrayal of the conflict – one that holds the lives of Japanese opponents in shockingly little regard – is directly at odds with the deeply human and contoured portrait of Doss. His miraculous rescues and genuine valor still receive ample, deserved praise. But the fact that Gibson drags this rich character down into the muck with his shallow depiction of war does regrettably tinge the triumph. B /