Prodigal son
With ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, Mel Gibson returns to the mythmaking game

No major star in the history of modern Hollywood has disappeared from the studio books quite as swiftly as Mel Gibson, whose place in the firmament was untouchable as recently as ten years ago. Gibson has acted only fitfully since he torpedoed his reputation with not one but two racist meltdowns, first in 2006 and again in 2010. This year’s Blood Father went the way of his last vehicle, 2012’s Get the Gringo: straight to video-on-demand after a face-saving theatrical release on a handful of screens.

Blood Father itself, in which Gibson battles cartel baddies on the tail of his estranged daughter, is nothing special, with dialogue that strains to be hard-boiled and an actress playing the supposedly strung-out daughter who glows like the central casting starlet she is. But the film’s reception has been largely generous, and it’s been framed universally as the actor’s comeback. Gibson’s irregular appearances in the last ten years are routinely cited as evidence of his pariah status: why else would he appear in something as fragrantly B-grade as Blood Father?

But Gibson, whose soft spot for fag-stained pulp goes way back to 1999’s Payback, was starting to move away from his career as a leading man even before he took a torch to it. When his anti-Semitic outburst became news in 2006, he hadn’t starred in a film for more than four years. After appearing in the alien-invasion drama Signs in 2002, Gibson returned to directing with 2004’s The Passion of the Christ and 2006’s virtuoso Mayan chase movie Apocalypto.

The man’s heroes are the same, whether he’s playing them or directing: leaders whose identities aren’t just forged through bloody ordeal but ennobled by it. Though he is routinely pegged as a boilerplate US Republican, a la Clint Eastwood, Gibson’s politics are actually less easy to pin down. The red states might have made The Passion a blockbuster, but Apocalypto, released two years later at the height of the Iraq War, showed no fealty to that audience: “The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys,” Gibson said at the time.

Apocalypto and The Passion are of a piece – crammed with pungent images, though never pausing to contemplate an artful composition for its own sake. Both take place over no more than a couple of days, and Gibson sustains a pitch that might best be described as hammering: the better to mimic the cardiac overload of characters in extreme duress. Released at the height of the Paul Greengrass speed-cutting era (2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, 2006’s United 93), Gibson’s films went against the grain – demonstrating the director’s fondness, perhaps over-indulged, for slo-mo.

Shot in Sydney late last year, Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson’s first film behind the camera since, and returns him to the bildungsroman mode of Braveheart. Like that film, he didn’t write it himself and its structure is strictly conventional. Hacksaw tells the story of Desmond Doss, a real-life American Seventh Day Adventist who refused to bear arms in World War Two but served as a medic in the Pacific. Doss saved 75 injured men in the Battle of Okinawa by fashioning double bowline knots and lowering them to safety, one by one, over the ridge of the film’s title.

The script, by American playwright Robert Schenkkan and Australian screenwriter Andrew Knight (Seachange, The Water Diviner), begins in Desmond’s childhood, and lays out his backstory (and the too-neat psychological motivation that backstory supplies) with a broad brush. We see the young Doss knock out his brother with a brick, nearly killing him, after which he swears off violence for good.

Their father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), is a veteran of World War One and an alcoholic prone to bouts of rage. (One of the film’s producers, Bill Mechanic, has said that he wanted Gibson to play the role himself.) Fifteen years after the brick incident, the adult Desmond (The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield) falls in love with a nurse with a beatific smile, played by Australian actor Teresa Palmer in the female role that stocks all of Gibson’s films: the adoring wife who is shunted to one side when the action really gets going.

Once Desmond arrives at Fort Jackson for training, Hacksaw veers briefly into courtroom drama mode when the army attempts to court-martial Doss for disobedience. The boot camp sequences are enlivened by the presence of Vince Vaughn, playing a staff sergeant. Vaughn’s sardonic streak is a welcome tonic to the earnestness of Doss, whose guilelessness recalls Jim Caviezel’s Witt in Terrence Malick’s 1998 Guadalcanal epic The Thin Red Line – another good southern boy, only this one runs into battle instead of away from it.

These early scenes are bizarrely overlit by cinematographer Simon Duggan, and several images are visibly composited, with an actor standing in front a background that has none-too-subtly been pasted in later. Maybe Duggan was aiming at some sort of homage to the grand tradition of rear projection: the first half of the picture, with its buttoned-up courtship and thoroughly sanitized, 1950s portrait of life in a bunkhouse, certainly feels like an unearthed relic from the studio era.

The PG-ness of it all makes what follows, of course, all the starker. The assault on the ridge begins shrouded in shadow, and Gibson and his sound designers expertly capture the juddering violence of the barrage that meets the Americans in Okinawa. At one point, the platoon’s alpha male, Smitty (Luke Bracey), runs into enemy fire using the torso of a bisected comrade as a shield.

After everybody else has retreated, Desmond spends a night alone in the mud, trying to rescue as many wounded as he can before they’re bayoneted by Japanese sweepers. When he makes it back to base, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) promptly turns him around to join a final assault: the men won’t go back up without him.

The subsequent victory is presented as a montage of charging GIs and surrendering Japs, and the turnaround in fortunes is taken as read. Where the first assault is brilliantly sustained and detailed, the second feels tossed off; a diminuendo where a crescendo should be. The film concludes with footage of the real Doss as an old man, talking about a battlefield memory we’ve just seen dramatised.

To call Gibson unsubtle is to miss the point: he’s in the iconography game, and his fifth film features scenes of baptism as well as ascension. Doss possesses one quality that Gibson has perhaps become more intimately acquainted with in the last ten years: humility. But while the character’s self-abnegation might make him a worthy subject for mythmaking, he’s not a natural one, and Hacksaw Ridge could have done with some of his idiosyncrasy. 

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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