I seem to have spent a high proportion of my cinematic viewing time this year in the company of Andrew Garfield in Japan fighting for what he believes in — or, rather, not fighting for what he believes in. I've admired Garfield's acting talents since I saw him in Red Riding, the 2009 TV adaptation of David Peace's quadrilogy of the same name, which is the main reason I went to a preview of Hacksaw Ridge on Wednesday night. It certainly wasn't because I enjoy war films (I don't), but although I wouldn't say that Mel Gibson's latest film was enjoyable, I did think that it was a gripping, if brutal, story about courage and conviction.
Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a sweet and caring young man who lives in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He has a strained relationship with his father (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic scarred by his experiences fighting in the First World War, and is thinking about pursuing medical training, particularly after meeting a comely young nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). But World War Two is raging in Europe and in the Pacific and although Desmond could have deferred the draft, he enlists in the army, determined to work as a combat medic.
He excels during training but, as his company-mates, sergeant (Vince Vaughan) and captain (Sam Worthington) soon find out, he refuses even to touch a rifle and won't commit any act of violence. He is a Seventh-day Adventist and has joined up as a conscientious objector — a conscientious objector or, as he puts it, a conscientious cooperator. The second act of the film is split between Top Gun-esque mess room banter ("you son of a...n exhibitionist") and scenes that resemble A Few Good Men more closely as Doss fights with all of his might to be allowed to go to war with his fellow soldiers despite his unwillingness to carry a weapon.
It is not until halfway through the film that the titular Hacksaw Ridge — a sheer cliff face, the top of which represents a key Japanese stronghold, control of which proves critical to the Battle of Okinawa — makes its appearance and the violence begins. And boy is it violent, loud, bloody and brutal. I can't remember the last war film I watched on the big screen but the seemingly endless senseless death, destruction and gore in the central battle sequence was particularly hard to watch.
It was only during this section of the film that I really began to understand Garfield's award nominations for this film. Doss's company members think his refusal to carry a weapon is a sign of cowardice, but his heroism and humanity are clearly demonstrated throughout the battle scenes, as he dispenses morphine and compassion in equal doses, tending to the wounded and offering dignity to the dead. And there is plenty of grit and determination in Garfield's so-often doleful brown eyes (he often plays characters who are misunderstood or betrayed) as he carries out the acts for which the real-life Doss was decorated.
Hacksaw Ridge takes a long time to get going but Doss's back story is an essential part of understanding what happens on top of the eponymous cliff and frankly, I'm not sure I could have watched any more of the fighting. That being said, although the story is well-structured, it could have been shortened by about 20 minutes. There is a large — mainly male, of course — supporting cast, and, other than Garfield, who I did think put in a moving and convincing performance, Weaving and Worthington were the standouts for me. The script was snappy and the film was visually very arresting ('beautiful' would be the wrong word). Although Gibson's film is never going to be the kind of film that makes it into my all-time favourites, it impressed me considerably.