Note: After reading his review of “Hacksaw Ridge,” the author of this article invites you to learn more about “Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey into Joy and Healing,” a new book that compares the writings of C. S. Lewis with the music of U2 in a life-changing journey through grief, joy, and longing for God. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
A Mel Gibson-directed movie is never just a movie. It’s an experience–often times life-changing (or at the very least, an experience that stays with you the rest of your life). I felt that way about “Braveheart.” I felt that way about “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto.” And I most definitely felt that way about “Hacksaw Ridge,” which proved to be one of the most moving films of any genre I’ve ever seen in my life, and certainly one of the most powerful war films ever made–right up there with “Saving Private Ryan” and “Fury.”
“Hacksaw Ridge,” however, has one thing going for it that gives it a unique, hard-to-define quality that no other war film has: it’s directed by Gibson, who is arguably one of the most effective (and affecting) directors in the history of cinema. (And regarding Hollywood’s war with Gibson–which was waged with the utmost hypocrisy–I addressed all of that a long time ago in another article here.) Gibson has an unbelievable knack for immersing the viewer in the emotional and psychological landscape of a character’s perspective. It really is incredible. It’s like watching LeBron James play basketball or Peyton Manning when he was in his prime play football. It really is more like a “life experience” that you never forget–not just another trip to the movie theater. I’ve heard scores of people say that about the first time they saw “Braveheart” or “The Passion of the Christ.” Not as many saw “Apocalypto”–because it wasn’t on the same mainstream radar as the other films so not as many people have seen it–but that film was just as unforgettable.
That being said, Gibson films are also incredibly violent. “Hacksaw Ridge” is among the most graphically violent war films ever made. But Gibson, as far as I have seen, always uses violence in an empathetic, redemptive context. What I mean by that is the violence, as horrifying as it can be (which is the whole point), adds something to every story that Gibson tells. It’s not just pointless, consequence-free violence reveling in the details of gore like so many nihilistic films have done. I’ll get more into that in the “Themes of Redemption” section.
Before we go any further, if you haven’t read my reviews before here is how my unorthodox structure works:
- If the movie is good, I talk about why.
- I dive into the worldview and deeper layers to explore what this film is saying. I sometimes veer off into related topics.
- I talk about how to “apply” the movie. I believe movies are meant for more than just disposable consumption, but they’re things we can take with us to make our lives better.
You might say this style of film review is based loosely on the inductive method of study: observe, interpret, and apply.
(Observations) Entertainment Value and Film Craft
Gibson is a virtuoso when it comes to pacing a story as it unfolds and slowly but very effectively placing you into the emotional and mental perspective of the characters. He has always been especially good with the use of slow motion and first-person camera angles. The cinematography feels so nuanced and carefully placed that it has the feel of a fine art experience, like watching a professional ballet dancer or a symphony at work. The film begins in a way reminiscent to Braveheart, with the background of the main character’s childhood and history before slipping into the present and letting the primary narrative unfold. So many movies botch these kinds of sweeping expositions. Gibson can do them in his sleep. By the time the primary action of the film gets going, you have so identified with the characters that you feel as if you’re there with them.
And all of the acting is Oscar-worthy. No doubt about that. Andrew Garfield is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, if not a win, and the supporting characters all shined. I was especially impressed with Hugo Weaving as Desmond Doss’s father.
(Interpretation) Worldviews, Deeper Layers of Meaning, and Why Gibson’s Trademark Use of Extreme Violence Has an Edifying Purpose:
Yes, “Hacksaw Ridge” is incredibly violent. And for that reason, if you’re uncomfortable with extremely graphic visuals, you might want to skip this one. What’s more, Gibson uses tricks from the horror film genre (especially the suspense and sudden SURPRISE! attack common in horror movies) to really make you feel the shock and horror of a battlefield situation. But the film actually uses the violence in such a way–and looks at the violence from the perspective of Private Desmond Doss, who is a conscientious objector–that by the end of the film you not only feel repulsed by the violence, but you sympathize with the Bible-inspired beliefs of Doss. In other words, the film uses violence to promote a message of anti-violence. It does not glorify or stylize the violence. What’s interesting is this: the movie also does not condemn the soldiers who do not believe in total pacifism but believe in bearing arms and fighting evil. The film pays enormous respect to veterans who fought for their country.
To be clear: I’m not a pacifist Christian. I believe war and fighting is sometimes morally necessary. But I did not feel that this movie was guilt-tripping me for that. It did, however, help me have a deeper sense of how/why the Gospel could apply to warfare and how Christ’s command to “love your enemy” might actually apply to a battlefield. It was eye-opening. It made me reevaluate how my understanding of Christ’s radical commands. But the film was also respectful of the opposing view.
This trick of presenting violence in a redemptive context and using it to amplify the film’s broader theme is something Gibson has done in all of his movies. Yes, every movie of his is violent, but in each case the acts of violence function as another character in the film, almost, who helps sharpen the impact of the story and the film’s theme. And Gibson always has powerful, redemptive themes in his films that are edifying. The violence is made to serve those redemptive themes, not the other way around, which is often the case in so many other Hollywood films.
Here are examples of what I mean from other Gibson films:
- In “Braveheart,” the violence reveals the terror and grief that the Scots had to endure and it also shows how terrible vengeance can be–for both the person taking revenge and the person receiving the act of revenge. The violence, in other words, helps the viewer empathize with the suffering of the Scots. The final effect on the viewer: a sense of the steep price it costs to obtain one’s liberty and a greater desire to never take basic freedoms for granted.
- In “The Passion of the Christ,” the violence against Christ shows the historical reality of what Christ had to endure to obey His Father and bring salvation to the world. It showed the steep price that Jesus had to pay to save us. The final effect on the viewer: a deep humbling and overwhelming sense of God’s love for us that He (through His Son) would go through all of that to save us.
- In “Apocalypto,” the violence of the Mayan villain Zero Wolf plunges the viewer into the urgency and desperation of the hero Jaguar Paw who is trying to escape his captors and return to his family. The final effect on the viewer: a deep appreciation for family and the basic blessing of home and a sobering warning of what happens when a civilization decays.
Conclusion (and Application): A Stunning Portrait of Christ-Like Obedience
War is hell. “Hacksaw Ridge” brings that hell to life with gut-wrenching, horrifying reality. But then the film sets Desmond Doss, a soft-spoken, Christ-following, prayerful, gentle spirit who refuses to even touch a rifle, right in the middle of that tortuous hell. What’s amazing is that the light and love of Doss’s beliefs overpower the horror and darkness of the hell of war. You actually walk away from the film encouraged, and you feel a deep urge rise up to love others the same way that Desmond Doss loves people. Moviegoers were more polite and gracious to each other as we filed out of the theater, as if seeing the testimony of Desmond Doss moved us all to show more grace and mercy to each other.
That alone makes the movie worth it.
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Content advisory for this film…
Note: The parental guidance content advisory is written from a Christian worldview. I am a person of faith with orthodox Christian beliefs like those expressed in “The Everlasting Man” by G. K. Chesterton, “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis, and “The Pursuit of God” by A. W. Tozer. That being said, I do not believe that the depiction of evil, even graphic depictions of evil or negative themes in films, is in itself always immoral. I believe it depends on the context and the worldview behind the film’s depiction of evil. All that being said, I try to report the content that gives the film its rating so that you can make an informed decision about viewing the film. Some people need to know detailed information about the content, some do not, in order to make a decision. I try to provide enough detail to give you a sense of the nature of the content. If you need more detail to make a better decision, I recommend visiting PluggedIn.com, as they provide extremely detailed reports of a movie’s content.
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality: After a couple is married, they embrace and kiss on their wedding night, but the camera cuts away. No nudity or sex is shown.
Violence/Gore/Scary/Disturbing Content: Extreme violence to the most graphic degree. Every form of guts and blood that could happen on a battlefield is seen from disembowelments to beheadings to being burned alive and the list goes on. There is also an element of the horror film in the way the battles are presented. The threat of the coming front line to the new soldiers who’ve never seen battle creeps slowly up to them in the film like the evil killer stalking a victim in a horror movie. It has that kind of dread and suspense. And then, in the eerie calm before the battle as the new soldiers creep forward onto the ruins of the battlefield–just before the blood and gore of battle begins–a soldier touches a fallen soldier who arrived to the battle long before and who may or may not be still alive. The fallen soldier, like a skeleton or zombie jumping to life from a crypt, suddenly awakens from the coma of his wound and jolts up in an upright sitting position screaming the most horrifying scream. This causes the soldier who touched the fallen soldier to scream too, and then gunfire from Japanese soldiers blows both their heads to pieces mid-scream. This is probably the most frightening scene of violence in the film, but it is only one example. There are far too many others to describe here. This film captures the true horror of warfare–from vomit-inducing battle wounds and deaths to the grisly sight of decaying bodies left to rot in the mud. As mentioned in the conclusion: war is hell. Despite the violence, this film sets Desmond Doss, a soft-spoken, gentle spirit who refuses to even touch a rifle, right in the middle of that tortuous hell. What’s amazing is that the light and love of Doss’s beliefs overpowers the horror and darkness of the hell of war.
Besides the war violence, domestic abuse is implied and heard in a household. Also, in the military barracks, soldiers beat up another soldier and leave him bleeding and bruised. Another soldier accidentally throws a knife into another soldier’s foot.
Language: No f-words, but there are several other “minor” swear words (b-words, s-words, a-words).
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Historical use of cigarettes (soldiers smoking). An alcoholic is a main character in the film, so we see him drinking and drunk.