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.

★★★

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Silence

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese


Although this is just the third time in his illustrious career, after The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, that Scorsese has depicted a centrally religious story, one need only look at his other movies to see how strongly the themes and symbols of Silence resonate in his filmography. In the many gangster films and thrillers that he is best known for directing, Scorsese has depicted such themes as sin, perdition, weakness, hypocrisy, reckoning and deliverance and has done so with great artistry and conviction. In Silence however, a film that was decades in the making and clearly a passion project of his, these themes are confronted in a challenging, relentless, punishing way unlike anything he has made before. Scorsese has basically made a career out of displaying the dark side of people and the violence they inflict, but this is a film that cuts on an entirely deeper, more emotional level. This picture is ruthless, demanding and excruciating and it is one of the director’s greatest masterpieces. If Scorsese could be regarded as the American Kurosawa (in terms of prestige and significance to cinema), then Silence is his Ran.

Two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) leave Portugal for feudal Japan in search of their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). It is believed that Ferreira has forsaken his vows after being tortured at the hands of the Japanese, a rumour that the two priests desperately hope will prove to be unfounded. They reach the island with the help of the drunken fisherman Kichijiro (Yösuke Kubozuka), a Japanese Christian undergoing a crisis of faith, and find the village of Tomogi where the townsfolk worship the Christian faith in secret. The arrival of the priests proves to be both a blessing and a curse to the villagers as they are now able to receive sacraments but are also now in danger of being discovered by the Japanese authorities who have been tasked with purging Christianity from their land. As the Japanese Christians suffer torment and death at the hands of the samurais, the two priests can only watch helplessly in silence until they too are finally captured. As captives of the Japanese governor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), the priests are subjected to unimaginable pain as their faith is put to the ultimate test.

As these two priests are tortured and bear witness to the torture of others they are forced to ask themselves painful questions, only to find themselves woefully without answers. How much suffering can a man endure to preserve his faith and how much should he have to endure in the name of his merciful, benevolent God? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others continue to suffer or to renounce one’s faith so that they might be spared? However brutal and barbaric the Japanese people’s methods are, are they right to view this Western religion as a corrosive influence on their own culture? Scorsese doesn’t have the answers to any of these questions nor does he ever try to provide one. There is no secret answer to the tests these priests are forced to go through, there is no divine inspiration or enlightened resolve; there is only helpless screaming and futile protest, followed by silence. The film does not condemn or condone, it doesn’t judge or absolve, and it doesn’t vilify or idolise. It creates a severely authentic and mesmerising experience for the audience that allows them to understand the thoughts and emotions behind these questions. The point isn’t to provide viewers with the answers; it’s to fuel their contemplation.

It takes a master director to create this kind of cinematic experience and there are few, living or dead, who deserve that title more than Scorsese. Another director might have opted to display the violent content of this film graphically, loudly and up close in order to try and create a more visceral experience, the way Mel Gibson did for instance in his own tale of religious violence, The Passion of the Christ. Scorsese however shows that some scenes can be even more emotionally devastating and unbearable when exercising restraint. Distance is used to emphasise helplessness and the absence of a divine presence. A slow pace is used to heighten the tension and prolong the agony. Silence is used to drive home the cruel finality of death and the unfeeling indifference of the world these characters inhabit. Scorsese goes beyond spectacle to create an engrossing, authentic, emotional experience. This isn’t a movie that the viewer watches; it is one that they endure and are affected by.

Silence is certainly a difficult film to watch which is why it likely won’t get the same level of popularity as Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Still, if time is kind to this film and it gets hailed as a classic years from now, maybe it will earn the same level of esteem and commemoration as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It definitely deserves to. The film is utterly gut wrenching and truly profound. It certainly feels like more of a personal film for Scorsese than many of his most recent projects, as if he himself has been undergoing a deeply intense crisis of faith in the decades it has taken him to complete this film. With all of the horrific trials, tribulations and atrocities he portrays and the tortuously confounding nature of the questions raised, I can only imagine the amount of soul searching Scorsese must have gone through while making this picture. The result is one of the most magnificent and enigmatic films of his prolific career and certainly one of the best films of 2016.

★★★★★