Hacksaw Ridge

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Morphing from strained melodrama via disconcertingly comedic asides into one of the most stomach-churning, brutal depictions of combat ever seen on a big screen, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a strange but potent beast. Shortcomings may dog its early going, but there’s no doubt that the elaborate staging of the assault on and attempt to wrestle command of the titled Ridge is one of the most pulsating, stirring set-pieces in cinema history. It provides an assault on the senses whilst being uncomfortably entertaining throughout.

On the downside, there are some jarring moments in the character-establishing first third of the film which begins with the childhood of Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) on a day when his constant play-fighting with brother Hal takes a nasty turn. The resultant serious injury that Hal suffers truly opens Desmond’s eyes up to how easy aggression can lead to dire consequences in an instant. The boys’ parents, Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), seem to have strayed in from a million wartime and other domestic dramas. Tom’s a former soldier himself, haunted by the loss of the friends whose graves he regularly visits to pour salt into all his old wartime wounds. A stray drop or two of alcohol also plays a part into contorting his mind with a strain of poisoned bitterness. Bertha is a commendably salt-of-the-earth type, shapeless but decent, determined to hold the family together even as the odds against it grow more imposing.

We then fast-forward to the young adulthood of Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) and his embarrassingly schmaltzy courtship of pretty and preposterously unattached nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). A series of scenes which are cringe-worthy for their triteness, simplicity and painful conventionality follow, before Doss almost immediately decides to follow his conscience and the lead of his brother, and enlist to become an army medic. Scenes of Doss’s time in training are treated with an equally jarring, weirdly comedic tone. The introduction of Vince Vaughn as hardnosed Sgt Howell begins a section of the film that will have you pondering a ludicrous fusion of R. Lee Ermey with Sgt. Bilko. Of course, it’s Doss’s reluctance to ever take arms that raises most controversy and almost sees him railroaded out of the army before he ever sees time on a battlefield. His religious convictions generate mistrust, anger and contempt from fellow soldiers and officers alike who are adamant that Doss will be detrimental to their cause.

But this story of Doss’s contribution to the saving of multiple lives on Hacksaw Ridge without ever firing a bullet in anger is one of remarkable heroism. The hand-to-hand warfare is portrayed with startling authenticity, initially hitting audiences like a thunderbolt of electricity and never letting up thereafter. It’s both increasingly difficult to watch or look away from as men on both sides are shot down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the true horror and chaos of these insane, frenzied, fugue-like back and forths, the extreme physical effects of humans being torn apart like rag dolls shown with a horrifying clarity. But amidst the carnage, Doss reveals cunning and courage as his burrows far and wide to retrieve wounded soldiers who would otherwise have been abandoned to horrible fates, either dying in agony or delivered a fatal blow by Japanese survivors.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score – the best of his career – contributes another pulsating, stirring emotional subtext to what is a mesmerisingly uncomfortable snapshot of war’s paradoxical nature, bringing courage and camaraderie to the fore even as it grinds itself down to ever more unpalatable chunks of abject futility. Gibson, never a director to let an opportunity to examine the painful associations of a bloodletting influence his artistic ambitions, as Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) can attest to, has made a ferocious contribution to the sub-genre of war cinema. With a startling lead performance from Garfield as the moralistic but resolute warrior that Doss becomes, and strong work from an ensemble amongst the military ranks (especially young Australian Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker), Gibson has forged a tale of humanistic endeavour amidst the most inhumane conditions imaginable and it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved by this boldly cinematic tale.

 

 

 

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Everest

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Only the most minimal amount of acting is required to sustain this latest encounter with Everest. Though purportedly centred on the epic human endeavour of conquering the world’s most fearsome icy mountain peak, this is a film that’s almost entirely about the spectacle, the awe-inspiring scenic vistas and, most significant of all, the series of disaster scenarios that hope to create tension and drama. Recounting the trek of a group of tourists being led up the mountain in 1996 by trailblazing New Zealand businessman Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), Everest (2015) offers scant character sketches by way of introduction to the men who’ll partake in this adventure of a lifetime.

Other than Hall, these include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texan – damned if that isn’t the only fact I can immediately recall about him; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), whose health is an issue and who will clearly be pushing himself to the limit one last time, God help him, for Everest glory. Sam Worthington and Martin Henderson appear and disappear like ghosts, while Jake Gyllenhaal’s Scott Fischer is a young upstart, the laid-back leader of another tourist venture who Hall would like to join forces with.

Then there are the haplessly marginalised female characters, the tortured wives doomed to suffering ‘back home’ and given the skimpiest of material to work with. Keira Knightley, dodgy New Zealand accent and all, is Hall’s pregnant partner, whilst Robin Wright is handed the equally onerous task of breathing life into a faded sketch as Beck’s wife Peach back in the States. Closer to the action, at base camp, is Emily Watson’s hen mother Helen Wilton, providing the line of communication between the front line and the anxiously awaiting womenfolk.

Other shortcomings in William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s painfully hollow screenplay draw attention to their virtual non-presence. Even more skimpily depicted than the females are the all-important Sherpas whose back-breaking, integral participation is reduced to a couple of perfunctory scenes, references and mediocre jokes to show that they’re nothing if not a slap-happy bunch whose amiability seemingly negates any tiresome need to reveal any human depths they might possess. Soon to be seen on our cinema screens is Jennifer Peedom’s glorious Sherpa (2015), a film that, beyond its visual grandeur, dignifies and illuminates the extraordinary breadth of the Sherpas grit and courage in the face of elemental forces and economic calamity.

Baltasar Kormakur’s film is a far less interesting cinematic proposition; in fact it’s possibly the most deadly dull ‘epic adventure’ in recent studio history. With its wind-strewn, comprehension-disabled dialogue, stumbling men rendered anonymous under layers of face-contorting clothing, cringeworthy collection of fake Kiwi accents, and depressingly perfunctory dialogue, Everest stumbles into each murky crevice of cliché armed with well credentialed actors who surely signed on the dotted line for the promise of a getaway and a well paid fitness regime. Tension and drama are absent from every threat posed by the falling, collapsing, clamouring icy chunks and boulders. Even worse, a woeful sense of familiarity has its own sweet way with the entire production, making the ascent to and descent down Everest’s peak as torturous for the audience as it is for the players.

Is there anything more depressing than seeing genuinely fine actors, best known for a series of genuinely interesting creative choices partaking of something so awful, so blatantly commercial and allowing themselves to be made into a cardboard cut-out of a human being, an imposter whose part is either marginal at best or whittled away to noting in the editing room? Is this really the same John Hawkes who has forged and truly earned his reputation as one of American independent cinemas finest actors in recent times thanks to his unforgettable roles in Winter’s Bone (2010), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and The Sessions (2012)? Fair to say Everest won’t be a film he’ll use to highlight his talents to his succeeding generations or even prospective employers from this day onwards.