Monday, December 26, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Hacksaw Ridge


It's been quite a year for "judging the art, not the artist". From Nate Parker, to Casey Affleck, to Woody Allen, Hollywood seems to be nearing a tipping point in how we approach celebrity in the social media age. This is certainly a question that is being asked in relation to Mel Gibson, whose past indiscretions have not prevented him from making another riveting film in "Hacksaw Ridge". As if to remind his fans of why they loved him before, this war epic recalls "Braveheart" while also exploring some new themes for the genre.

Based on a true story, "Hacksaw Ridge" follows Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a homegrown country boy from Lynchburg Virginia. Growing up with his parents and his brother, he is brought up with firm Christian values. And one day, a traumatic incident occurs that reinforces his beliefs, especially with regards to violence and the Sixth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill). Years later as a young adult, his stance is put to the test. World War II is raging in Japan and young men are encouraged to enlist. Feeling a sense of duty to his country, Desmond decides to sign up as a combat medic, much to the disapproval of his father (who understands first-hand the dangers of the battlefield). The only catch is that he refuses to carry or use any weapons as a conscientious objector. Of course, his philosophy doesn't sit well with his army superiors. But Desmond remains undeterred, vowing to contribute to the cause by saving as many lives as he can.

As a romance, war epic and courtroom drama, Gibson delivers classic big-screen spectacle with this comeback film. And impressively, he gives all of those story elements their due weight. A large chunk of the film is used to establish the Desmond character with his backstory particularly underlining the circumstances that influenced the protagonist's strict moral code. Likewise, a meet-cute beautifully blossoms into a relationship, further emphasizing his loving nature. By the time the film moves to Japan, we therefore have a full understanding of Desmond and the psychology behind his subsequent actions.

And action is certainly what we get in the latter half of the film, as Gibson finds his comfort zone with terrifically executed battle scenes. Staged with visceral intensity and unflinching violence, he never backs down from the horror of war, making the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge into an ominous hellscape. It's easy to see why Gibson has attracted so much attention in the Best Director Oscar race.

But his approach isn't perfect however. The film's big emotional beats are often overwrought, lingering too long with swelling music. Even a mere pre-war kiss is played like the climax of the most sweeping romance drama of all time. And Gibson doesn't trust Garfield's committed performance to inherently show the character's tremendous courage and heroism. You could also argue that for a film which highlights compassion during wartime, its depiction of "good vs evil" leaves little room for nuance. But that would oppose the script's honest character study, as Doss' interest in the war was guided by that same principle. Still, it's the rare film of its ilk that doesn't celebrate toxic masculinity as a virtue, redefining the traditional concept of bravery.

Ultimately, "Hacksaw Ridge" thus emerges as a success through its sheer entertainment value, with enough thoughtfulness to appease more discerning viewers. And don't be surprised if Academy voters think so too, showering it with nods for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Indeed, the film will likely bring back fond memories of films like "Saving Private Ryan" and Gibson's own "Braveheart". Enough to make them say "they don't make 'em like they used to." Or at the very least, like Mel used to.

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