The long, infernal second part of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge takes the audience into the anatomy theater of war, where disembowelments, dismemberments, and partial decapitations are framed by parting curtains of smoke. It’s sick and gruesome, like an old Italian zombie or cannibal movie. The muddy landscape is littered with viscera, furrowed by foxholes and naval bombardment. Rooting through the bodies, with a little syrette of morphine pinched between his thumb and forefinger, is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, very good), an American medic and pacifist who will not touch a gun. Doss is skinny and tattered, a religious Seventh-Day Adventist, spiritual and self-sufficient like a hermit. Gibson, who hasn’t directed a movie since Apocalypto, takes the old line about war being hell very literally. For him, Doss—the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal Of Honor—is a penitent, a pilgrim, and finally a saint, and the steep escarpment dubbed “Hacksaw Ridge” at the Battle Of Okinawa is the entrance to genuine damnation.
Gibson has one subject as a filmmaker: savagery and the men who redeem it by enduring suffering. Arriving at boot camp as a bumpkin from the outskirts of Lynchburg, Virginia, Doss is met by a mini-Gomorrah, subjected to mockery and nighttime beatings for his refusal to train with a rifle. The young men who will serve alongside Doss in the 77th Infantry Division are vain and macho, but their readiness to fight the enemy will be flattened into thousand-yard stares by the deployment to Okinawa. The film, written by Robert Schenkkan (The Pacific) and Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner), takes something like an hour to get to the battlefield; the protraction is the first test of Doss’ spiritual and moral character and it climaxes in his court martial. He is an everyman sinner, identified from the beginning with the biblical Cain. In one of the first scenes, where he is introduced as a child in rural poverty, he knocks his brother unconscious by hitting him over the head with a rock in a fight. He is understood, then, to be redeeming our capacity for violence by resisting his own.
Yet Hacksaw Ridge is the goriest war movie ever to come out of Hollywood; the violence is grislier than the climax of the Gibson-starring We Were Soldiers, in which the skulls of North Vietnamese soldiers ruptured like jelly-filled jars under machine gun fire, and comes at much greater length. Gibson directs the battlefield in widescreen tapestries of trailing entrails, gushing flames, and contorted bodies. Raining blood—the result of shelling against a nearby Japanese position—drizzles on the faces of the infantrymen as they first make the climb up to this seventh circle of a Dantean hell. The first, very long battle sequence is overpowering, and Hacksaw Ridge never tries to top it, opting to focus on grotesque allegory. In his attempts to help the wounded, Doss finds the body of a Japanese officer who committed suicide dangling in a tunnel; watches American and Japanese soldiers scream at each other as they wrestle for a grenade before it blows them to bits; and, in a scene straight out of a medieval manuscript, finds one of his fellow grunts begging in agony, buried up to his neck in the ground.
At home before joining the Army, Doss passes the time reading textbooks borrowed from his fiancée, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse. On their first date, sitting in the middle of a darkened movie theater, he asks her, “What’s the difference between an artery and a vein?” When they first meet, it’s at the Lynchburg hospital, where Doss is waiting to get his only belt back after fashioning a makeshift tourniquet for a man injured in an accident outside his church. His redemption as an Army medic splits the difference between fate and free will: It’s the destined path he must choose not to stray from, over and over. Surrounded by guns, he only ever picks one up to fashion a makeshift stretcher, and in a script full of period-specific racial slurs, he only ever refers to the enemy as “the Japanese.”
With the exception of Dorothy, all of the other characters in Hacksaw Ridge represent challenges to the faith that Doss considers synonymous with duty, from his drill sergeant (a miscast Vince Vaughn) to his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving, doing a “warsh” Appalachian accent), a World War I veteran whose physical abusiveness is complicated (rather than mitigated) by the real lengths he goes to help his son. By the point where our hero returns from heaving dozens of wounded men down the side of Hacksaw Ridge and has the blood washed off of him in a blatant symbolic baptism, one begins to wonder whether anything in this film technically qualifies as subtext. Gibson, who has never made a distinction between turmoil and torture, finds in Doss’ story every opportunity to express internal problems externally. Kept in a jail cell before his court martial, Doss is literally imprisoned by his beliefs. Then comes the field of battle, where every decision is life-or-death.
But at the same time, the whole idea that Doss needs redemption is challenging. His only sin is the capacity for sin that he shares with everyone else. One might call this a refinement of Gibson’s fixations as a director: battles more terrifying than Braveheart and a portrayal of sacrificial lambhood that’s more compelling than The Passion Of The Christ, in part because Doss, as much of an unwavering do-gooder as he might be, is an actual character with conflicts. By turns hokey and surprisingly eloquent, Hacksaw Ridge is full of broad characterizations and even broader gestures. But it takes a difficult position and holds to it, even as it piles on the shredded limbs, rotting corpses, and zings of sniper fire. Through the perversion of war, it arrives at one transcendent and mysterious image, about two-thirds of the way through: of the hero, having just helped another wounded soldier down the side of the escarpment, turning his back to the camera to hobble back into a lingering cloud of smoke to look for more.