'Hacksaw Ridge' Early Buzz: Mel Gibson's War Drama Is Powerful, Grisly But Also Traditionalist & Unsubtle

There's some big buzz surrounding another anticipated premiere out of the Venice Film Festival. This time, it's Mel Gibson's return behind the camera for the first time in 10 years that is garnering plenty of attention.

Hacksaw Ridge is a war drama based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a young Seventh Day Adventist who drew criticism from his fellow soldiers for sticking to his Pacifist beliefs and never picking up a weapon during his time serving in the military during World War II. Miraculously, the soldier single-handedly rescued 75 of his wounded brothers in one night, earning him the Medal of Honor. The story paints the portrait of a man who stood by his own beliefs and credited God with his heroic feats, and Mel Gibson doesn't shy away from a message of faith in the face of adversity.

The first Hacksaw Ridge reviews have arrived from the festival, where the film received a 10-minute standing ovation. While there's plenty of praise for an astounding performance by Andrew Garfield and some incredible, harrowing battle footage in the vein of Saving Private Ryan, it sounds like the film has problems in its lack of subtlety.

Here are some excerpts from the first Hacksaw Ridge reviews out of Venice:

Owen Gleiberman at Variety throws praise at the war footage by comparing it to Saving Private Ryan, but doesn't think it quite measures up to classic films of its kind:

It's 1945, and the soldiers from Desmond's platoon join forces with other troops to take Hacksaw Ridge, a crucial stretch — it looks like a Japanese version of the land above Normandy beach — that can lead them, potentially, to a victory in Okinawa, and the beginning of the end of the war. Gibson's staging of the horror of combat generates enough shock and awe to earn comparison to the famous opening sequence of "Saving Private Ryan," although it must be said that he borrows a lot from (and never matches) Spielberg's virtuosity. Yet Gibson creates a blistering cinematic battleground all his own. Each time the fight breaks out again, it's so relentless that you wonder how anyone could survive it.

The real story that "Hacksaw Ridge" is telling, of course, is Desmond's, and Gibson stages it in straightforward anecdotes of compassion under fire, though without necessarily finding anything revelatory in the sight of a courageous medic administering to his fellow soldiers (and, at certain points, even to wounded Japanese), tying their blown-off limbs with tourniquets, giving them shots of morphine between murmured words of hope, and dragging them to safety. In a sense, the real drama is a nobility that won't speak its name: It's the depth of Desmond's fearlessness, and his love for his soldier brothers, which we believe in, thanks to Garfield's reverent performance, but which doesn't create a combat drama that's either scary or exciting enough to rival the classic war movies of our time. This isn't a great one; it's just a good one (which is nothing to sneeze at).

Ben Croll at IndieWire notes that the film is a little too broad in the drama that's presented, especially with regards to its portrayal of pacificism, patriotism, and faith, but compliments the presentation of a battle in Okinawa:

The film suffers from broad strokes. Desmond's father (Hugo Weaving) isn't just a shell-shocked veteran of the first Great War – he's The Most Shell-Shocked Veteran. He says as much twice over, but if the message wasn't clear, Desmond's mother (Rachel Griffiths) gets to say it again. The boot camp sequences follow a similarly well-worn path, introducing Vince Vaughn as the same drill sergeant you've seen in every film from "Full Metal Jacket" on down. Vaughn and fellow officer played Sam Worthington are initially mystified by pacifist's refusal to bear arms, and try to drum him out of the army. So, like father like son, Desmond gets about four different instances to explain that faith prohibits him from fighting, but patriotism compels him to serve (a "conscientious co-operator"), before the issue is resolved where all speeches are made in American cinema – in a courtroom scene.

Hacksaw Ridge cycles through these beats as the same old stations in a war-film passion play, but it roars to screaming life once the action moves to the battle of Okinawa and the fighting can begin in earnest. Strange choices from the first part, like cinematographer Simon Duggan's decision to overlight most shots, make perfect sense on the battlefield, intensifying the carnage by making it so visually inescapable. Gibson and crew haven't unlocked some new visual approach to depict combat – it's still a lot firing and running and shit blowing up – but they reproduce the chaos of battle with a fantastic level of control.

Hacksaw Ridge - Andrew Garfield

Jessica Kiang at The Playlist finds the film to be problematic in how it presents "a true story" where faith isn't something that can be argued with:

Along with screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, Gibson, whose lack of directorial subtlety but skill with action both reach an apex here, is not content to tell the true story of Desmond Doss and his unshakeable, courage-giving faith. He wants to convince us that his faith was, in fact, the truth.

That might seem like a semantic qualm, but the difference between those two impulses is the difference between the sober, bloody but uplifting war epic that "Hacksaw Ridge" could be, and the agenda-based allegory it turns into. It makes this starry, well-mounted, lavish period war film into essentially a grander-than-usual entry into the faith-based category, though with admittedly a sight more rat-nibbled corpses than "God's Not Dead" gave us.

David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter recognizes the clichéd elements of the movie, but finds that other aspects, including Andrew Garfield's performance, help overcome those shortcomings:

Back in the saddle with Hacksaw Ridge, [Gibson] once again proves himself a muscular storyteller who knows exactly how to raise a pulse, heighten emotion and build intensity to explosive peaks. Themes of courage, patriotism, faith and unwavering adherence to personal beliefs have been a constant through Gibson's directing projects, as has a fascination with bloodshed and gore. Those qualities serve this powerful true story of heroism without violence extremely well, overcoming its occasional cliched battle-movie tropes to provide stirring drama.

But the film's firm anchor, its moral compass and its considerable heart is Garfield, inhabiting his frontline position as both character and performer with extraordinary fortitude and grace.

Alonso Duralde at The Wrap took notice of how the war footage was impressively shot, but was not a fan of the overbearing musical cues in the score:

Working with editor John Gilbert ("The Bank Job") and cinematographer Simon Duggan ("Warcraft"), Gibson has created some of the most breathtakingly exciting wartime footage in recent memory. They craft a real architecture to this hellish landscape; no matter how chaotic the proceedings, we always know where everyone is in relation to everyone else, and pauses get inserted into the action lest it all become too much to take. (But remember folks, this is a movie about pacifism.)

There are moments, however, when Gibson might have done well to rein in composer Rupert Gregson-Williams ("The Legend of Tarzan"), who's constantly putting too fine a point on Doss's heroism in the field. The visuals are telling us what we need to know without the orchestra working overtime to do the same thing.

Finally, Andrew Pulver at The Guardian relates the film to Gibson's own personal troubles that resulted from some unsavory behavior years ago and how this film just might help redeem him:

As repellent a figure as many may still find Gibson, I have to report he's absolutely hit Hacksaw Ridge out of the park.

Gibson's gift as a director has always been the coruscating portrayal of violent combat, imparting the viscera-knotting energy of a slasher film to the conventional matrix of the sober war film. It's not possible to say if Hacksaw Ridge contains the most violent or gruesome combat scenes ever filmed, but let's just say it resembles Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers without any of the satire or audience-winking.

Gibson is a man looking for redemption, and in this redemptive vision he may just have found it.


In the full reviews, there is plenty more universal praise for Andrew Garfield's lead performance, but many also wonder if audiences will be able to look past Mel Gibson's mistakes to accept it for the act of redemption it appears to be for the filmmaker. Aside from that, most of the reviews recognize that the film is rather traditionalist and obvious in its presentation of this soldier's experience with faith and firm beliefs, but it also fits in with Gibson's storytelling style.

Based on the reviews, a 10-minute standing ovation may be overkill (and that kind of reaction frequently is at film festivals), but Hacksaw Ridge sounds like the kind of movie that we've come to expect from Mel Gibson, and it will likely be an awards contender once it arrives in theaters this fall.

Hacksaw Ridge hits theaters on November 4th, and you can watch the trailer right here.