Thursday, February 09, 2017

Ridge Lines

I don't generally care much for war movies. While there have been exceptions over the years, it was nevertheless with some reluctance that I went to cross Hacksaw Ridge off my Oscar viewing list.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of World War II soldier Desmond Doss, who sought to serve as a combat medic despite being a conscientious objector who refused to kill or carry a weapon. The Best Picture nominee follows the Full Metal Jacket formula of dividing the film between basic training and field deployment. In fact, in structure and plotting, it's a rigidly conventional war movie. What makes it work to revisit this familiar form yet again is that Desmond Doss is equally rigid -- he will not conform to the stereotypes. Thus, every expected scene is turned on its head. Training vignettes about breaking a man down don't break him down. Notions of battlefield glory that normally stand front and center in these films aren't a consideration for him.

Because this one character is what makes this movie distinct, the actor playing him has the chance to shine. It's no surprise that Andrew Garfield earned a Best Actor nomination for his performance. It's both a physically and emotionally demanding role, and very few of his scenes are "even handed" in giving another performer equal weight. He has to carry the movie, and he is up it.

That said, there are a couple other performances worthy of note. Hugo Weaving plays Desmond's father, a haunted World War I veteran who has to deal with alcoholism, anger, and the desire to keep his sons from experiencing the horror he lived. Then there's the drill sergeant character (every one of these movies has one), played by Vince Vaughn. Both of these actors have been cast in roles quite outside their norm, and both have a lot of expected cliche to hit in their performances. Both are great despite these challenges.

I actually enjoyed the film more than I expected. Still, there were a few sections I thought missed the mark. I noted that the film works because it centers on a protagonist who defies war movie tropes. The initial stages of the titular battle, however, are pure "horrors of war" stuff, and Desmond Doss goes missing from them entirely for long stretches. (His story is really about what happens after the battle.) This material embodies a lot of what I don't generally like about war movies, and is in no way distinct in this war movie.

Then there are a few directorial choices made by Mel Gibson. Given the history of Gibson the man, and past projects by Gibson the director, I was expecting this movie to be awash in Christ imagery throughout. Instead, there was remarkable restraint here... lulling me into a false sense of security until the last half hour. Suddenly, the visual metaphors started piling on in a distracting avalanche. There's also a scene that quite uncomfortably juxtaposes prayer with intent to kill, played quite nobly and without any trace of irony or moral ambiguity. Possibly that's on the screenwriters and not Gibson, but either way its a powerfully discordant note.

Hacksaw Ridge wouldn't make my list of the 10 "Best Pictures" of 2016. Still, I found it a worthier film than some on Oscar's list. I give it a B.

No comments: