In the most unyielding, prescriptivist sense, Hacksaw Ridge is not a film about a pacifist. The real-life character at its center, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), firmly believes that it would be sinful to kill other human beings even in combat, but he has no particular complaint if the men surrounding him see fit to kill other human beings by the blood-filled bucketful. Still, when one needs to specify that we're not actually looking at a pacifist movie, then we're probably looking at something that's pretty damn well close to a pacifist movie. While no doubt Hacksaw Ridge is entirely typical of director Mel Gibson's well-described fascination with all the ways that the human body can be horribly mangled in highly aestheticised ways, which does distract more than a bit from its anti-war message, this is still a movie that strides right into the heart of the Good War itself, and squarely looks its primarily American audience in the eye to state, bluntly and very overtly, "killing another person exacts a dreadful cost, no matter why you did it". Even with the baggage hanging on it, that's the kind of artless message movie that I'm happy to get behind.

Outside of its theme, there's not a whole lot that's tremendously new about the film, which plays like the spine of Sergeant York with sequences from Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan tacked onto it. That is to say, the very protracted opening sequence of the film has nothing to do with World War II at all, instead spending time in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where young Desmond (Darcy Bryce) is one with the mountains and the natural world and such. There are two important things to know about the Doss family: one is that they are Seventh-Day Adventists, and the other is the paterfamilias Tom (Hugo Weaving) is a World War I veteran with PTSD, crippling alcoholism, and a tendency to abuse his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and sons in order to make himself feel better about both of those complaints. His violent tendencies have been reborn in the younger generation, and one day during routine play fighting, Desmond clobbers his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) in the head with a brick. It's not fatal, but it terrifies Bertha regardless, and she forces Desmond to reflect on his sinful behavior and repent his violent ways before a loving God.

Flash forward ten years, and World War II is in full swing, with Desmond thoroughly committed to nonviolence in all ways. This does not mean that he is any less of a patriot, nor that he is not anxious to do his bit for the war effort, but that plot doesn't kick in for a bit yet. First, we follow along as Desmond shyly meets and courts Army nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), giving him a bit more fleshiness than the relatively straightforward moral purity which might otherwise threaten to overwhelm him. At any rate, he eventually joins up to serve as a medic, heads to basic training that's straight of the Military Movie ClichΓ©-O-Mat under the guidance of sharp drill sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), and along the way has to defend his passionate belief that carrying a gun will compromise his dearly-held religious sensibilities. And eventually, a good halfway through the 139-minute film or even more, he arrives in Okinawa, there to do whatever he can to save lives while steadily refusing to take them.

It's one of the more peculiar quirks of Hacksaw Ridge that despite Gibson's immense facility with staging battle scenes (the action is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a Saving Private Ryan clone filtered through the sensibilities of the man who made Braveheart; for me, that's some pretty high praise, but anybody who found Braveheart> - to say nothing of The Passion of the Christ - unappealing violence porn won't likely have their minds changed about the director here), the film is generally more engaging before Desmond leaves the United States. That's where all the great character material is located; and I do mean great character material. For something that's fairly obviously a message movie about remaining true to one's convictions in the face of steep opposition, there's a surprising and gratifying amount of intimate character work that insistently makes this Desmond's story first and always, and not the heightened story of The Noble Christian Confronted with Military Violence. Garfield is quite outstanding in the role, bringing tremulous emotion to a part that could have awfully easily settled in at bland, performative virtue; he convincingly makes it clear how hard this is on Desmond, how much discipline it takes to keep his values foregrounded at all times. It's not exactly ambivalent - there's not a frame where we're invited to think anything other than that his pacifism is absolutely just - but a depiction of firm moral behavior as something essentially exhausting and terrifying is pretty rare in its own right, and kudos to screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, and Garfield, for going there. It's not the only deeply nuanced performance: Weaving is superb in the small role as Tom Doss, a man who wears a lifetime of pain on his face, who blatantly yearns to be better than he is, without even slightly exonerating the man for his cruelty. One feels great sympathy for the character hand-in-hand with remaining unstintingly nervous around him.

All of this does take the back burner in the second half, in favor of clear-eyed depictions of combat. It's a surprisingly unsentimental film, and a largely amoral one; we see very few Japanese soldiers, but Gibson and cinematographer Simon Duggan film them in the same uninflected style that most of the Americans get, and while it's obvious from our surrogate character Desmond who the good guys are, Hacksaw Ridge is interested in many things more than it is in dealing with the right or wrong side of things. If we accept the movie's fundamental idea that war is in and of itself wrong, that's a settled question anyway, or at least an irrelevant one. All that's left is to watch with flat fascination at sudden carnage taking over the characters we've been briefly, but effectively introduced to, indifferent and nasty violence that erupts in sharp, short bursts. It's potent, though not maybe all that analytical; the sense of nightmare grandeur found in Saving Private Ryan is absent, to say nothing of the spiritual horrors running rampant in The Thin Red Line and Letters from Iwo Jima, the two great Pacific Theater battle movies of the last 20 years.

That all being said, and not denying that the film falls squarely into the trap that no anti-war combat film can avoid making battle seem exciting and rousing, Hacksaw Ridge is still pretty sobering, ashen-faced stuff. Desmond, in reality and the movie, was regarded as an uncommonly brave hero, and Gibson's not above framing him in some lush lighting close to the end. But it's also clear, from Garfield's performance, from the unrelenting pace, and so on, that Desmond acts not from heroism, bravery, patriotism, or any other noble emotion: he acts because he's there, and there's nothing else to do but act. It is a film about heroism as a desperate, nearly animalistic act of constant repetition. The whole film posits that combat is all about instinct and pushing through shock, not anti-war per se but too keenly aware of the cost of war to the individual to celebrate the action of the group. It is, anyway, one of the most striking war pictures America has made in years: morally troubling and coolly jingoistic in more or less equal measure, always gripped with the conviction that we'd be so much better off if the world was full of Desmond Dosses - not just for his bravery, but even more so for the principles underpinning it, and the rejection of violence as a solution. So far as that goes, I am happy to thoroughly agree with the movie. Not to mention that you have to tip your hat to a movie in this day and age that actively courts right-wing Christian viewers, only to eagerly claim that the greatest morality in Christianity is to go out in the world and do as much good and negate as much harm as possible. How much nicer a world we'd live in if more people believed that way.