Hacksaw Ridge

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Theresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving

Director: Mel Gibson

Writers: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight


Hacksaw Ridge is a chaotic movie, full of sudden shifts and contradictions, but that’s probably to be expected from a director like Mel Gibson. Despite his overtly messy personal life and his infamous ravings (which really aren’t worth getting into at this stage) it would seem that with this movie Gibson has been welcomed back to Hollywood with open arms. A man with deeply held religious beliefs and an apparent addiction to havoc, the film falls snugly in line with his filmography of extremely violent films with themes of spirituality and faith. The question of whether these two extremes can be reconciled is a part of what makes his films fascinating. Here he has taken the story of a devoutly religious man, averse to the very act of killing, and yet has incorporated scenes of such great carnage and savagery that they make Saving Private Ryan look positively tame. The movie, in a way, is the clash of two conflicting extremes and the result is a fascinating mess.

After a traumatic childhood experience Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) grows into a pious Christian with a staunch belief in the seventh commandment. When the Second World War breaks out Doss is compelled by patriotism and duty to serve, but his morals will not permit him to hold a gun or to kill a human being. His solution is to enlist as a medic, so that his only role shall be save lives rather than take them. Doss is greeted by his training officer Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and his fellow trainees with nothing but contempt as they see his choice as little more than cowardice. Even his father Tom (Hugo Weaving), himself a veteran of the Great War, is unsettled by Doss’ decision. Supporting him as he is subjected to this animosity is his fiancé Dorothy Schutte (Theresa Palmer). Despite suffering pain, torment, scorn and humiliation, Doss perseveres and completes his training. Thus he is shipped off to Okinawa and, without a weapon, must rely on his wits, strength, and faith in order to survive the horrors of war.

The first half of this film is classically idealistic and romantic often to the point of schmaltz. The town Doss lives in is quaint suburban America, something straight out of a Frank Capra movie. Doss is a good-looking, athletic and upstanding young man with a picturesque sweetheart whom he sweeps off her feet in that old-fashioned Hollywood way. When the war breaks out, Doss enlists as a “conscientious collaborator” (not objector) and stands firmly by his convictions in the face of adversity. The moral exchanges he shares are unambiguously black and white, painting Doss as the remarkable, admirable man who will one day become the first soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honour without ever firing a shot. Garfield’s performance as the mythologised Doss is strong, solemn and feels utterly sincere. The character he creates is an admirable one, so admirable that the movie itself often finds that it cannot live up to his example.

With all the intensely and graphically violent content that Gibson portrays in the film’s latter half, one must ask whether he is undermining the message of his own pacifist picture. A statement often attributed to François Truffaut famously claims that it is impossible to make an anti-war film because cinema cannot help but make combat look glamorous. While I’m not convinced this statement is true for all war movies (Come and See is one film that I would hardly describe as glamorous), it seems to ring true in this case. For all of Doss’ talk about peace and morality, Gibson revels in the brutality and bloodlust of the battle scenes every bit as much as he did in Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. The wounds suffered by the soldiers are shown in full, gory detail. A heroic act in the heat of combat is showcased by majestic slow motion. Even in one scene when Doss drags a fellow soldier away from the field of battle on an improvised sled, Gibson cannot resist having that soldier scream triumphantly as he fires at the pursuing Japanese soldiers. These battle scenes are thrilling, marvellous and exquisitely shot, and that is both a strength and a flaw.

With that said, the movie seems aware of its inability to join Doss in his aversion to violence. One could almost imagine Gibson himself as one of the soldiers, both confounded and astonished by Doss’ morality and pacifism and thus resentful towards him because of it. The film believes in the rightness of Doss’ morals, but lacks his resolve and endurance. Gibson is an addict and the draw of cinematic violence is more than he can resist, even at the detriment of his own story. In fact the movie itself is in many ways far deeper than the very story it’s trying to tell, which is actually rather hackneyed and simple. The film is astounding yet flawed, compelling yet misguided, masterful yet clumsy. Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson at his best and his worst and is more interesting in its concept and execution than it is in its viewing.

★★★

Lion

Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman

Director: Garth Davis

Writer: Luke Davies


When I saw Lion I thought of it as the quintessential ‘movie your mum will love’. It is heartrending film with a happy ending, it’s based on a true story, and it contains emotionally powerful moments that will open the floodgates for many viewers. Oftentimes tearjerkers can be rather manipulative, preying on the audience’s sentimentality and eschewing the kind of honesty and insight that makes for great storytelling. Telling an audience to feel sad for a little boy who is alone and lost and far away from home is easy. Allowing us to understand and feel the depth of that boy’s fear, despair and confusion both as a child and as an adult, the enormity and impossibility of the task facing him, and the ambivalent pain and guilt he feels as he goes behind his adoptive parents’ backs to try and find his home and family, that is much more difficult and much more rewarding.

The first half of the film follows five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who follows his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a job and is separated from him when he falls asleep on a train that he is unable to exit. When the train reaches its destination in Calcutta days later, Saroo finds himself lost in a strange city where he knows no one, doesn’t speak the language, and is unable to find a way back home. After months of struggling through hunger, poverty and nefarious characters with sinister intentions, Saroo ends up in an orphanage and before long is adopted by a generous and loving Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). Years later, when Saroo has grown up to become Dev Patel (star of the film’s spiritual sister Slumdog Millionaire), a party with his college classmates triggers a remembrance of his childhood and a longing to reconnect with his roots. Thus he embarks on a quest to search for his hometown and find his mother, brother and sister.

The film shows great patience in telling its story, opting to follow the young Saroo throughout its first half, trusting the audience not to lose interest before the first English word is spoken or the first recognisable, bankable star enters the plot. I’m glad that’s the approach they chose because this first half is easily the most compelling part of the film. One reason for this is Davis’ direction, where he adopts a Spielbergian child’s-eye-view to emphasise Saroo’s smallness and sense of feeling lost. Another is the performance of newcomer Sunny Pawar as the young boy, whose expressive face and childish energy allowed him to convey a wealth of emotions, even in scenes where he doesn’t speak a word, and to carry the entire film almost completely by himself (between Pawar, Jacob Tremblay and Millie Bobby Brown, it seems that child actors today are much better than they used to be). With all due respect to Patel, his performance would not have been half as affective if Pawar hadn’t been there to lay the groundwork for him.

The second half is when the plot really kicks off, as the now grown up Saroo becomes determined to find his home. While the scenes of him staring intently at Google Earth aren’t exactly what one might call cinematic, I found that I was emotionally invested enough by this point that I wanted to see where his search would lead him. It is during this portion of the plot that the film is able to raise some truly compelling questions. Questions not only concerning how Saroo can find his family, but also about whether he should. His adoptive parents have after all given him everything from unconditional love to a bright future. When Saroo makes the decision to search for his home he also makes the decision to keep it a secret from them, fearing that his pursuit would be regarded as a rejection of their love and generosity. The emotional payoff for this conflict comes in a remarkable scene where Sue, in a moment of profound vulnerability, explains to Saroo the exact reason why she and David decided to adopt him. Kidman, no doubt drawing from her own experiences as an adoptive mother, earns her Oscar nomination in this scene.

Lion is a thoroughly moving and sincere film. It can be sentimental, but only when it has earned the right to be. It is a film about identity and belonging and the estrangement that comes with not knowing who we are. Even with a family whom he loves, a place he can call home and a life of infinite possibilities, Saroo is still lost and it tears him up inside. So great is his anguish that he is ready to give up on his promising future as a hotel manager and his caring, supportive girlfriend Lucy (played by a largely underused Rooney Mara) in pursuit of the life he lost. The thought of the mother who stays up at night crying out for him and the brother who is tormented by the act of leaving him alone on that fateful night is more than he can bear. There is a stunning human story being told here and one would have to be inhuman not to be touched by it.

★★★★

Jackie

Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt

Director: Pablo Larraín

Writer: Noah Oppenheim


Of all the American presidents, Kennedy is perhaps the most mythologised. After a less than three-year presidency that came to a sudden, tragic end, he is remembered by many as one of the greatest in the country’s history. The Kennedy administration is often seen as a lost golden age for the country, a time of hope and endless possibilities. So strong is his this idea that the spots on his record such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his notorious womanising have done nothing to tarnish it. Kennedy’s legacy has been such a driving force in American history that it’s easy to forget that it is ultimately a myth. Although Kennedy was indeed an impressive man and a good president with great ideas, his legacy carries a sense of idealism and romance that no real person could possibly embody. Camelot, as it came to be called, is an idea that his since immortalised the memory of John F. Kennedy. This film tells the story of the legend’s author, Jackie Kennedy, the President’s beloved and equally impressive First Lady.

Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) set out deliver this message to the world when she summoned Life journalist Theodore H. White for an interview a week after her husband’s death. The film provides a fictionalised version of this interview with a journalist played by Billy Crudup. Thus we are given an account of Jackie’s days as the First Lady. The film follows her from the early days to her famous TV tour of the White House to the day of the assassination. As her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) takes control of the situation, Jackie must all at once process the terrible shock that has occurred, work out how best to mourn the man who has inspired so many conflicting emotions within her, and decide what role she must play in defining the late president’s legacy. To this end she seeks guidance from such confidantes as Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt).

In the days following the President’s assassination the First Lady’s state of mind is disordered and fragmented and the story’s structure reflects that. The film jumps back and forth in time and creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of a woman going through an unimaginable crisis. Before, she was a dutiful wife whose whole identity was defined by her husband’s pursuits and ambition. Upon his death she no longer knows who she’s supposed to be, she only knows that she cannot be her own person. She still has a duty to perform and her grief and distress is secondary to that of the country. Privately she finds that she must confront her feelings towards her husband, a man whose life dominated her own and who was unfaithful to her, in order to grieve and mourn him. This is something she has to do alone as she finds herself largely neglected by those who are more concerned with the political effects of this tragedy. Upon the death of the nation’s leader the need to swear in his successor as soon as possible is so paramount that hardly anyone notices the widow sitting in the adjacent room on the plane still wearing the dress stained with her husband’s blood.

Natalie Portman is a tour de force as the bereaved First Lady. Her speech and expressions are wonderfully deliberate as she conveys a character putting on a performance, donning a number of masks depending on who Jackie needs or is required to be. In the 1961 documentary she is the gracious, glamorous host introducing the world to a new kind of White House with a new kind of president. At Kennedy’s funeral (which she makes sure is elaborate enough for the President to be remembered like Lincoln, rather than forgotten like Garfield and McKinley), she is the strong, devoted wife putting on a brave face for her children and the public. With the journalist she is the composed, antagonistic narrator, adamant that not a single word will be printed without her approval. The moments when her masks drop and we see her true vulnerable self are devastatingly affective as are her moments of endurance and determination as she takes control of her own life and her husband’s legacy. The astonishing layers Portman brings to the character as she balances the complex, often-conflicting motivations and emotions are simply breathtaking.

“This will be your version of what happened” says the journalist as he begins his interview with the First Lady. This is a film that has set out to tell Jacqueline Kennedy’s story on her own terms and it does so without convention or sentimentality. Oppenheim’s screenplay is startling in the liberties it takes, depicting Jackie in her most private, vulnerable moments. The movie is by all means a fiction, in that it isn’t based on any credited sources, but the profound insights it conveys through this complex, fascinating woman are still deeply moving and strikingly authentic. Equally striking are the visual aspects from the beautifully intimate cinematography to the alluring costumes, as well as the mesmerising score accompanying them. Jackie is a wholly remarkable film that defies the conventions of the traditional biographical films that tend to emerge around awards season. It is a captivating, challenging and stunningly sincere picture of grief, identity and myth.

★★★★★