Confusion reigns in the opening seconds of Hacksaw Ridge.
Without context or explanation, the WWII epic plunges the viewer into a chaotic frenzy of bullets, explosions, and flames as bodies tear apart. Amid bedlam, soldiers run hither and thither. There's blood everywhere, severed limbs, piles of red-black flesh still smoking on the dark sand.
The violence and gore are so raw and so graphic, the confusion so overwhelming, they recall the famous opening scene of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.
But the effect isn't awe-inspiring as in Spielberg's operatic depiction of the Normandy landing in WWII. It's disgusting, disturbing. You're left aghast.
I imagine that's the point that Hacksaw Ridge director Mel Gibson is trying to make with his risky opening gambit – war is hell. Even, he seems to suggest, a war as just as WWII.
Gibson has been surrounded by controversy over the last few years for behavior in public that has ranged from the outlandish to the insulting and disgusting. But let's focus on his movie here.
A majestic, if sometimes grandiloquent, achievement set at the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, Gibson's film is a fact-based biopic about American hero Desmond Doss, a U.S. Army medic who became one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the Pacific Theater – without firing a single shot.
Portrayed by Andrew Garfield with an astonishing soulfulness that recalls Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity, Doss was a devout Seventh-day Adventist who declined a religious exemption that would allow him to avoid military service. He volunteered with a patriotic fervor matched only by his equally strong personal commitment that he could join the war only as a conscientious objector.
Doss, who died in 2006 at age 87, was the first conscientious objector ever to receive the Medal of Honor. (Two others have since won the award, both posthumously, for service in the Vietnam War.)
The grotesque atrocity exhibition that opens the film will return in the last act of Gibson's 131-minute war saga. But its brief appearance at the top of the film is quickly followed by scenes of Doss' prewar life in a rural corner of Virginia with his parents, Tom and Bertha (Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths), and his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic).
It's not exactly an idyllic life. The Dosses can barely make ends meet, and patriarch Tom, who was broken by his experiences during WWI, is portrayed as a violent drunk who abuses his wife and children. Gibson injects this portion of the film with a balance of harsh realism and comedy as he follows Desmond's clumsy attempts to court local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer).
Gibson, who cast the film primarily with fellow Australians, then closely follows the structure of several classic war films, including From Here to Eternity and Full Metal Jacket, with a middle section that takes Doss through basic training.
Armed at all times with a pocket Bible, Doss isn't shy about his conscientious-objector status. He refuses to touch a weapon of any kind, which makes him a target for bullying at the hands of fellow enlistees, played by a tightly knit ensemble of actors, including Luke Pegler, Ben Mingay, and Firass Dirani.
Vince Vaughn is perfectly vicious as the drill sergeant, while Sam Worthington is quietly menacing as the company captain who is convinced Doss' refusal to bear arms will cost lives.
Garfield melts into his Doss character in a performance that seems impossibly still and tranquil. He's mesmerizing. It's almost impossible to imagine he ever played Spider-Man.
The film's final act is a relentless sequence of blood and terror. Hacksaw Ridge is named after a piece of sandy rock in Okinawa where Doss performed a miraculous deed. He stayed at the top of the ridge even after the Japanese had overrun the place to help wounded troops left behind by the American withdrawal. He managed, single-handedly, to evacuate more than 75 men, carrying many on his back while under fire. Those he rescued included a handful of Japanese soldiers.
Does Hacksaw Ridge have too much violence? Does it revel in its interminable battle scenes? I have always seen a tendency to cinematic sadism in Gibson, but these questions are open to debate.
What's certain is that Hacksaw Ridge is one of his most important films.
It fits beautifully in Gibson's body of work as a director, in between action films such as Braveheart and Apocalypto and the religious masterpiece The Passion of the Christ.
It's the work of an artist who seems intimately aware of the paradoxical relationship between violence and faith that has existed in the history of religions and of the complicated message of peace and revolt preached by Jesus. Gibson's Desmond Doss is a worthy successor to his very personal versions of William Wallace and Christ.
3.5 (Out of four stars)
Parent's guide: R (intense, prolonged, realistically graphic sequences of war violence, including grisly bloody images).
Playing at: Area theaters.