Creating an emotional scene is easy. Make the actor cry, zoom the camera on his face, queue the dramatic music, and there you have it. Those are the three main ingredients in creating an emotional scene. There are other ingredients to be considered of course (and many different approaches) but those are the bare essentials. Lots of movies do this. Some of them are great films. Some of them, not so much. The difference between a good emotional scene and a bad one is how effective it is. Does it stir emotion in the audience? You don’t necessarily have to make them cry, but as long as they get involved in the moment, the scene works. But when it becomes obvious that the audience is being manipulated instead of being gently lead to feeling emotion, that’s where the scene breaks down. It falls flat, and instead of making us cry, it makes us groan at how corny the whole thing is.
Hacksaw Ridge manages to do both. There are corny scenes and there are emotional ones. I wish I can say that the latter outweighs the former, but it doesn’t. I spent more time groaning while watching this movie than getting emotionally involved. In some ways, this imbalance is worse than if the scales were mostly tipped on either end. There are moments in the film that are so emotionally affecting, which makes it all the more frustrating when the film fails to live up to its extraordinary true story.
Desmond Doss’ experiences during World War II is already so compelling by itself that you really don’t need to add too much of a flourish to make it work well onscreen. Unfortunately, director Mel Gibson sprinkles the film with so much melodrama that it manages to distract from an already interesting story. There is no subtlety or grace when it comes to how the film is handled. It’s mired in so much clumsy sentimentality that makes the whole thing feel forced and inauthentic, almost as if a title card appears during crucial moments instructing the audience to start crying in 3, 2, 1….
Another aspect that the film falls short on is in the action scenes. It’s appropriately brutal and relentless, but it feels like a hollow spectacle instead of a harrowing ordeal. The carnage and violence don’t carry much weight since we don’t really care (or know) about the characters who are in the middle of it. There’s also an unmistakable sense of “Been there, done that,” to the violence being portrayed onscreen. There have been so many World War II films over the years that the genre feels stale and overdone at this point. Saving Private Ryan’s astounding D-day opening scene has managed to overshadow the many different depictions of World War II battles ever since it was released almost twenty years ago, and Hacksaw Ridge is no exception from being found wanting compared to it.
Even worse, the violence being portrayed sometimes feels like it belongs in some schlocky B-horror movie instead of a gripping war drama. There’s virtually no emotional impact with the violence because it looks like the film is more concerned with showing off how much blood they can spray onscreen. It’s not even disturbing. It just looks silly and amateurish.
The film’s saving grace is Andrew Garfield’s astonishing performance as the conscientious soldier who refused to compromise on his beliefs while serving his country. Garfield brings his trademark sensitivity to the film and excels at making Desmond Doss feel like a real person with emotional depth and clarity, even though the film is trying so hard to undermine any sense of dramatic authenticity that should’ve come with it. Even more impressive is his ability to make Desmond so likeable in spite of his bullheaded stubborness in the first half of the film. Desmond Doss is a difficult character to like, specifically in the first hour of the film when his refusal to even hold a gun brings so much unnecessary trouble for himself and his family. But Garfield’s performance makes you empathize with him even if you are aggressively disagreeing with his ludicrous decisions.
I’m not in the habit of declaring which films are worthy or aren’t worthy of awards and recognition, but I sincerely believe that had a lesser actor portrayed Desmond Doss, I think Hacksaw Ridge would’ve been summarily dismissed by a not insignificant number of critics and audiences. In many respects Andrew Garfield absolutely carries the film by himself, but a single talented actor can only do so much to lift up a film that brings itself down.