Throughout his long career both behind and in front of the camera, Mel Gibson has proven time and time again that he knows how to tell a story. His latest, the Australian-American co-production Hacksaw Ridge, is a roaring success in terms of character development and emotional engagement, making its anti-war sentiment hit home with great strength. Unsurprisingly, it has received 13 AACTA Award nominations, including Best Film.
The film tells the story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, the only person to have ever been awarded the Medal of Honor, despite having never used a firearm. The army medic's story expounds upon the virtues of pacifism, but also explores the harsh realities of war with a grey morality - dispensing with black and white, right and wrong - without the bravado that marks many war films. Hacksaw Ridge shows the clear cost of war, and does not glamourise it.
The film's first act does a superb job of setting up the character of Desmond and his stance as a conscientious objector, with Andrew Garfield giving a deep and very sympathetic performance. While the introduction of love interest Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) initially feels forced and formulaic, her performance too reveals a feisty, opinionated woman who was an influencing factor in Desmond's decisions and who is absolutely necessary to the plot.
Gibson's direction has elicited from the cast, which also includes Rachel Griffiths, Hugo Weaving, and others, some deeply nuanced performances that cut right to the core of who these characters are. Through deeply affecting moments and also moments of levity and humour, the film steals the audience's hearts to devastating effect.
The plot is advanced even during the frequent scenes of combat. Character development is not pushed to the side in favour of spectacle. It feels as if some of the keenly portrayed and fully fleshed out characters were taken too soon. When the audience audibly responds to the loss of certain characters, it is clear that the film is emotionally engaging and the story well-told.
The battle sequences themselves are, in true Mel Gibson form, extremely graphic. The violence and grotesqueness of certain sequences serves to highlight the waste and stupidity of war. The special effects are outstanding in their realism. Real explosives, including a bomb invented specifically for shooting this film, add a physicality to the film's visuals that is astonishing.
Speaking to Sydney Scoop at the film's red carpet premiere, many of the cast members remarked that Gibson's direction gave them a huge amount of freedom to play scenes the way they wished. His hands-on directing style found him right there in the trenches, in the rain and heat, alongside them. Reportedly the location shoots were gruelling, the actors wearing metal helmets that reached extremely high temperatures, adding to the desperation and pain depicted in the film.
Sydney-born actor Goran D. Kleut, who plays Andy "Ghoul" Walker in the film, remarked that what kept them going through the shoot and the three weeks of army training they received prior was the thought that their challenges were nothing compared to those of the real people whose stories they were telling.
With its balance of intimate, human moments, and unimaginable violence and gruesome scenes of warfare, Hacksaw Ridge presents a story and images that will stay with audiences long after they leave the theatre.
Hacksaw Ridge opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 3rd.