1. a food made from the pressed curds of milk.
2. (informal) the quality of being too obviously sentimental.
"the conversations tend too far toward cheese"
3. (extra informal) the natural state of a Mel Gibson movie.
"Mozzarella Mel coats Christ in cheese"
Mel Gibson certainly knows his way around a block of fromage. There’s nothing inherently wrong with cinematic cheese and occasionally it’s particularly tasty, but something really stinks about Gibson’s latest, a cornball ode to blood, brawn, and bullet-ridden bodies. It’s meant to be WWII heroism with a twist, focusing its true-story narrative on medic Desmond Doss, who refused to bear arms and saved a bunch of men in the heat of horrific battle, becoming the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Purple Heart. In Gibson’s hands, though, this potentially uplifting story is an overbaked casserole of clichés.
From showing Desmond as a kid to mark the origin of his distaste for violence to an awfully familiar basic training section complete with comically barking drill instructor (Vince Vaughn), Gibson and screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight routinely take the least riveting road to battlefield glory. The script is preposterously clunky, loudly leading us from scene to scene so that we’re constantly aware of the cogs grinding against one another in the great narrative machine.
The early scenes with young Desmond and his brother are used to establish several things that invite much bad acting and exaggerated direction. The boys love to fight playfully while dear old dad (Hugo Weaving) looks on in a drunken stupor. We meet the patriarch in a cemetery talking to the graves of fallen friends from WWI. He even pours some alcohol from his flask, further completing the subtlety-free portrait. He’s a total wreck, undone by his survivor’s guilt and so haunted by the past that he can’t properly inhabit the present.
It could be a powerful role if Weaving didn’t focus all his energies on contorting his face so ridiculously that he ends up resembling some Picasso-esque creature, causing a comically cubist performance. Weaving is probably just following suit since everything in the movie is so epically over-the-top, but the brazen lack of restraint still cheapens the movie’s attempt to communicate how some war wounds never heal.
Daddy Doss is also shown to be physically abusive and his violent tendencies have filtered down to his sons, another point Gibson drums incessantly, securing the position of these themes at the surface. When Desmond tries to get the upper hand in an otherwise everyday fight with his brother, he clocks him with a brick and nearly kills him.
Between the scare of being branded a murderer and an ominous reminder via the Ten Commandments that killing is bad, Gibson hokily establishes the dawn of Desmond’s desire to forgo violence. The broader, deeper, more interesting explanation for Desmond’s steadfast determination is tied to faith, but the intangible isn’t concrete enough for Gibson, so bludgeoning by brick it is.
With that out of the way, Desmond grows up to be played by Andrew Garfield and Gibson moves on to a corny courtship, the Americans joining the WWII fight, and eventually Desmond enlisting and then refusing to so much as touch a rifle at boot camp. Every other guy in Desmond’s squad ridicules his decision and the conflict bred here is, as executed by Gibson and a bland cast, completely interchangeable with a laundry list of past war movies. Throw in Vaughn’s insult-hurling drill instructor and it just feels like Gibson binge-watched the major titles of manly war cinema and then regurgitated whatever parts and pieces he liked best.
Of course, what Gibson really wants to get to is the gory jingoism that lies ahead. He’s long since had a talent for capturing the chaotic carnage of combat and while WWII action sequences were already cinematically revolutionized years ago in a way that movie medieval battles were not when Gibson made his technically audacious Braveheart more than 20 years ago, the bullets still whiz by on Hacksaw Ridge with a jarring sense of destructive danger.
The problem then becomes a matter of perspective and an issue of conflicting ideologies. Gibson clearly sides with Desmond and is eager to illustrate that the protagonist's stubborn refusal to bear arms was a sensible act of heroism, but his support rings false when he so gleefully glorifies the excessive violence on the battlefield. Showing acts of war in a war movie is to be expected, but it all feels a bit ridiculous that the counterpoint to Desmond’s earnest resistance is a bunch of bodies flying through the air in slow-motion while the score soars with them.
Gibson ends up dedicating a lengthy sequence to the hero’s selfless actions when he stays atop the ridge after a retreat has been ordered and, with no other help, rescues multiple wounded soldiers that would have otherwise perished. It’s a stirring story of putting the greater good ahead of oneself, so it’s unfortunate that the uniqueness of Desmond Doss’ tale is so drowned in syrup and so adorned with silly cinematic flourishes. When Desmond slow-motion kicks a grenade in mid-air, soccer-style, it’s really time for Gibson to pack things up. He can take his cheese with him. His brand was never gourmet, but what once was satisfying is now just pitifully processed.