It had been a decade since Mel Gibson last directed a movie by the time Hacksaw Ridge reached cinemas in the U.S. last fall. Considering the Oscar wins for Braveheart and the massive box office grosses for The Passion of the Christ (plus respectable business for follow-up Apocalypto to the tune of $50 million domestically and $120 million worldwide), it was a little weird to witness an advertising campaign that more or less avoided using Gibson's name in the lead-up to the film's opening. The picture ended up doing decent-sized business - grossing over $65 million in the states and another nearly $100 million internationally - and receiving half a dozen Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Gibson. Suddenly the oft-scandalized star was in the midst of a full-fledged, if slightly unenthusiastic, comeback.
On its surface Hacksaw Ridge is a traditional war picture, brimming with sudden, visceral violence, that embraces religion like a red state wet dream. Again, Gibson has managed to combine extreme blood with the Bible in a way that plays to a large swath of the nation, and maybe the world. Here he turns a mid-sized Wikipedia entry into a film that endures for two and a quarter hours. A mess of Australians, one Yank, and an American-born Brit combine to, among other things, re-enact the U.S. Army's fight against the Japanese on a cliff in the Battle of Okinawa.
Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a pacifist from Virginia committed to his Seventh-day Adventist religion and determined to not pick up a gun. Doss was a real person and what he did was so unbelievable as to be outlandish from a cinematic standpoint had it not actually happened. Much of what we see could almost have a sketch comedy quality to it if not for the lingering reality that this did more or less occur. Though there's also the counterpoint that you can hardly tell this particular story many other ways, it's still to Gibson's credit that he ably holds together the elements of incredulity enough to keep it all humming along at a good pace. Sure Doss is a simple bumpkin-like character with minimal depth but at least Gibson opts to be consistent with it all. There's no magical progression for Doss. He's the same guy in the end as he was early on, only now he's done something quite amazing via circumstance and commitment to his ideals.
What's somewhat troubling is the ideological confusion present within Hacksaw Ridge that makes the viewer wonder if it's celebrating Doss because of his stance against violence or despite it. Unlike some movies in the war and western genres - titles as wide-ranging as Fires on the Plain and Unforgiven - where the subject of violence gets carefully examined and loudly denounced, Gibson's film seems to strangely accept it all as a means to an end. Hacksaw Ridge revels in the blood spurting from each wounded soldier. Instead of coldly showing the price of war it almost revels in the shock value of the carnage. This is a slasher film more than an anti-war one.
As for Doss, he's celebrated, to be sure, but with such a perfunctory matter-of-factness as to make the viewer still wonder what exactly was so special about him as to make this guy, among all of those who've served, be the one who decided to reject all insistence to bear arms. It's a bit perverse, too, to have the man who made Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ be the filmmaker to bring to the screen the story of a Medal of Honor-winning pacifist so against violence as to refuse to carry a gun in the midst of combat. Even after watching Hacksaw Ridge it's not entirely clear if the director made the movie because he liked the anti-violence stance or because it gave him the opportunity to again combine ample blood with ample religious devotion.
For two and a quarter hours it's easy enough to watch Gibson's film. He's got the pacing down, and the way he directs the battle scenes is fascinating regardless of the politics that may or may not be present. But it's not a great movie or an especially memorable war picture. Howard Hawks did better by a similar story over 75 years ago with Sergeant York - before the events depicted here even occurred. Hacksaw Ridge may feel novel now because there's been perhaps one meaningful Hollywood movie made about WWII in 15 or 20 years but it doesn't measure up to the all-time greats.
Hacksaw Ridge reaches Blu-ray in the U.S. via Summit and Lionsgate. It's released in a BD+DVD+Digital HD edition that is locked to Region A. There's a slipcover and a sticker on it reminding us the picture was nominated for three Golden Globes. Phooey.
Image quality is excellent. The 2.40:1 widescreen frame looks very good indeed. Battle scenes display great detail - perhaps more than some might want. The tightness and clarity of what's on screen is never less than remarkable. No issues of damage or artifacting are present.
Audio comes with the options of English Dolby Atmos, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and English 2.0 Dolby Digital optimized for late-night listening. Plus English Descriptive Audio. Unusual audio choices but nonetheless effective ones. Explosions, gunfire and southern accents all sound wonderful. The Dolby Atmos track is a relatively new creation that emphasizes 3D environments and probably won't be fully appreciated on the average home set-up (including mine). There are subtitles in Spanish and English for the hearing impaired.
Extra features include Deleted Scenes and a "Veterans Day Greeting with Mel Gibson" where Gibson offers thanks to the nation's veterans and comments on the idea that God was with Doss.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the featurette "The Soul of War: Making Hacksaw Ridge" (69:23). This is a lengthy making-of piece that dives into several aspects of the filmmaking process. It approaches redundancy, particularly since it lasts about half as long as the actual movie, but fans will surely appreciate its thoroughness.