Thursday, November 17, 2016

A hack saw a ridge ...

I wouldn't have called Mel Gibson a hack before Monday. But then I saw Hacksaw Ridge.

Now, "hack" is about the only word that seems appropriate.

Have you seen this movie?

Yes, you. I'm talking to you.

It's an hour of maudlin, sentimental slop involving dull wartime romances, platitudes about personal beliefs, perfunctory training montages and about as much aw-shucks dorkiness from Andrew Garfield as a person can handle -- not to mention some pretty outrageous overacting by Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths -- followed by an hour of extreme violence that reaches nearly Kill Bill levels of comic absurdity, except it's not played as comedy.

Essentially, it's an hour of Gibson's heartfelt religious crap followed by an hour of Gibson's sadistic violence crap.

In order to follow through on the implications for the ellipses in my title, I might speculate that the reason Gibson wanted to make this movie was the titular ridge in Okinawa, which required U.S. soldiers to scale it using rope ladders in order to attack the Japanese. In my somewhat limited understanding of world conflicts, it appears to be a unique bit of topography to have to grapple with in order to carry out an attack. Reason enough for someone to make a movie, I think.

But who am I kidding? Gibson made this movie in order to keep drilling away on two long-standing obsessions: Christianity, and the outrageous suffering of the human body.

I won't get into a point-by-point analysis of what works (little of it) and doesn't work (most of it) about Hacksaw Ridge. Really, I'm more interested in how Gibson's filmmaking skills seem to have departed him in the ten years since he made Apocalypto, an enthralling, ambitious, original action movie that touched on some of his obsessions but was more interested in delivering a stupendously entertaining movie. Even when Gibson was making movies I did not particularly care for -- such as The Passion of the Christ -- he was showing off a truly advanced understanding of how to use the tools of cinema to make us feel. We may not have liked what we were feeling in Christ, but we couldn't deny its visceral power.

That has utterly dissipated in Hacksaw Ridge, a flat movie filled with stock characters.

Now before you get too up in arms about this statement -- since I may have gotten you wrong and you may have liked this movie -- I will grant you that the battle sequences do involve a high degree of difficulty. Bodies are catching fire and flipping in a ballet of chaos and destruction. Viscera is exiting bodies and heads are popping off. Penises are flying through the air. Okay, some of that stuff may not have happened. But Gibson is so fixated on corporeal dismemberment that I wouldn't be surprised if you told me they did. It would have been really hard to do, and to Gibson's credit, he does give us a good sense of the battlefield dynamics -- who is where, what's at stake, what were the unique complications of this particular battle. It's highly orchestrated chaos.

But to what end? The tools of cinema only serve us to the extent that they deepen the film's themes or tap into something essential about its narrative or the purpose of that narrative. Since Gibson's film does not do that -- and in fact runs contrary to that, as a queasy celebration of violence in a film about pacifism -- it seems like misplaced, and therefore superfluous, and therefore useless, and therefore even aesthetically unsatisfying, technique.

One other point I want to touch on about Hacksaw Ridge is its cast. There is a "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" quality to them. I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but first I'll tell you that I almost called this post "Give me your tired," as that would have also functioned as an indictment of the movie's cliched banalities.

What I mean by that is that it's a truly odd cast, composed largely of people it seemed like Gibson must have had to pick off the scrap heap. And before you take umbrage at that characterization, let me clarify it further. Few of the people Gibson cast are not A-listers, or at least, very recent A-listers. But they are so oddly chosen for their roles that they make it seem like Gibson, at this stage of his pariah-hood, only had a certain number of A-listers available to him, and had to fit those square pegs into round holes.

The most glaring in this regard is Vince Vaughn, who plays a drill sergeant -- and then, I guess, an actual sergeant. (Is there a difference? I don't know.) It's not that Vaughn cannot play drama at all -- one of my favorite Vaughn performances is a dramatic role in The Cell -- but that he is uniquely unqualified to play a drill sergeant. It's not that he can't yell -- anyone can yell -- but that he does not seem the least bit intimidating when he does so. As a clear sign of how Gibson did not know what to do with him, he includes an ill-advised comedic moment involving the character in which Vaughn mistakes one of his grunts for a Native American and proceeds to force the grunt to join him in that "traditional" Native American war cry involving repeatedly touching your open palm to your open mouth while making the cry. What's even stranger about it is that it might be literally the movie's only attempt at a joke.

Then what's noticeable about this cast is how many Australians it features. That can't just be a result of the number of Australians available in Hollywood. It must be a representation of either who has stuck by Gibson or who is willing to work with him. Not only do you have the aforementioned Weaving and Griffiths -- the latter of whom I didn't recognize at first, indicating at least how she's been off my personal radar, if not out of the public eye -- but also Sam Worthington and Teresa Palmer. Palmer is a lovely presence and I would call her A-list adjacent, but Worthington's brief heat after Avatar has long since cooled. To such an extent that he sticks out, even if his performance is not actually worth speaking ill of. To such an extent that I spent the whole movie trying to remember the actor's name. To think that I might not be able to remember the name of the star of Avatar, which came out only seven years ago.

Garfield is the most whole-heartedly A-list of the cast, in the prime of his career if ever there was a prime. He's 33 and figures to have as many exciting projects still ahead of him as behind him. But his was possibly my least favorite performance. He's all neck and teeth, a gawky southerner whose earnestness is only bested by his politeness. Those character traits do not automatically turn me off, but the way Garfield plays them is just so "aw shucks gee whillickers" big that it truly perturbed me. I wished Jim Cavaziel had been young enough to play the role, even though I don't like him much better. (That seems like who Gibson would have chosen in his perfect world.)

It's not that Gibson's films have always challenged the status quo, either. That's not what I needed to see. In fact, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto might have seemed like deviations from what started out as a pretty conventional directing career. His 1993 debut, The Man Without a Face, was a well-made, populist coming-of-age story, one that actually had an excess of humanism (and no violence, as I recall it). And Braveheart was high on the body count, but it did not feel indulgent in its violence, resulting in an incredibly popular film that went on to win best picture. These movies did not prove Gibson's daring, just his solid craftsmanship.

You could say that Hacksaw Ridge still demonstrates solid craftsmanship, in places. But its total lack of complication and daring is dispiriting, and undermines that craftsmanship. The Gibson we got in 2004 and 2006 with Christ and Apocalypto -- before he was rightly drummed out of Hollywood -- was a man making bold choices that only didn't work, if they didn't work, for reasons of tone or intent. Now that he's made another film like the two that started his career, at least in terms of their attempt to function as mainstream products, it feels like he's lost both his voice and some of his technical ability.

Because Apocalypto demonstrated such a command of the various elements that go into making a film, I really thought the next Gibson joint would be something astonishing -- and I longed for it, on some level, even as I grew to loathe the man himself.

Now that he's back, I feel like instead of a type of visionary, we just have another Hollywood hack.

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