Hacksaw Ridge is a brutally effective, idiosyncratic combat saga — the true story of a man of peace caught up in the inferno of World War II. It’s the first movie Mel Gibson has directed since “Apocalypto,” 10 years ago (a film he’d already shot before the scandals that engulfed him), and this November, when it opens with a good chance of becoming a player during awards season, it will likely prove to be the first film in a decade that can mark his re-entry into the heart of the industry. Yet to say that “Hacksaw Ridge” finally leaves the Gibson scandals behind isn’t quite right; it has been made in their shadow. On some not-so-hard-to-read level, the film is conceived and presented as an act of atonement.
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It should be obvious by now that the question of whether we can separate a popular actor or filmmaker’s off-screen life from his on-screen art doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. Every instance is different. In the case of Mel Gibson, what we saw a number of years ago — first in his anti-Semitic comments, then in leaked recordings of his phone conversations — wasn’t simply “objectionable” thoughts, but a rage that suggested he had a temperament of emotional violence. It was one that reverberated through his two most prominent films as a director: “The Passion of the Christ,” a sensational and, in many quarters, unfairly disdained religious psychodrama that was a serious attempt to grapple with the stakes of Christ’s sacrifice, and “Apocalypto,” a fanciful but mesmerizing Mayan adventure steeped to the bone in the ambiguous allure of blood and death.
Like those two movies, “Hacksaw Ridge” is the work of a director possessed by the reality of violence as an unholy yet unavoidable truth. The film takes its title from a patch of battleground on the Japanese island of Okinawa, at the top of a 100-foot cliff, that’s all mud and branches and bunkers and foxholes, and where the fight, when it arrives (one hour into the movie), is a gruesome cataclysm of terror. Against the nonstop clatter of machine-gun fire, bombs and grenades explode with a relentless random force, blowing off limbs and blasting bodies in two, and fire is everywhere, erupting from the explosions and the tips of flame-throwers. Bullets rip through helmets and chests, and half-dead soldiers sprawl on the ground, their guts hanging out like hamburger.
Discover the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss. the inspiration behind Hacksaw Ridge.