Hacksaw Ridge [2016] – Perseverance in the Midst of Chaos and Carnage

Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) tells the true story of Desmond Doss (1919-2006), an American medic and pacifist, who have vowed to not touch a rifle. His saintly activities at the Battle of Okinawa (at a cliff called ‘Hacksaw’) made him the first conscientious objector to receive the ‘Medal of Honor’. It’s easily understandable why Mr. Gibson is fascinated by the tale of Desmond Doss. The actor-turned-director has previously made four feature films, which were all about men in conflict. Except for the directorial debut ‘The Man without a Face’ (1993), all his other three films are about redeeming themselves from the brutality or literal violence around them. In this path to possible redemption, the men are in conflict with their own selves and also confront an overwhelming external conflict. Mel Gibson’s men eventually learn to face these conflicts by enduring suffering (or by clinging on to the roots of their beliefs). For the most part of Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s camera scrutinizes the inner pain, stirring on the face of Andrew Garfield’s Doss. The camera stays with him in the moment Doss lets out all his repressed pain as well as the moments he silently bears the pain. After Doss’ magnanimous act, his view becomes the camera’s eye. As fatigued Doss walks among his fellow soldiers, they shuffle across, watching him with amazement as if he is the son of God who had just performed a miracle. This evolution lies at the center of Mel Gibson’s directorial ventures. 

But still Gibson’s works often only scrapes the surface. It looks daring and emotionally resonant, but if you scratch beneath the surface, it all seems too conventional. Nevertheless, it’s not necessary to be bothered about this factor because Gibson’s skin-deep structures are so compelling and lively to experience. Is Hacksaw Ridge one of the best modern war movies? Definitely not. It’s a fairly engaging war movie with some interesting visualizations. The movie opens with sepia-toned visuals of an idyllic small town in Virginia. Desmond T. Doss is first seen as a little boy climbing ridges with his brother and getting beaten by his drunk, war veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving). Kid Doss, in one of the fights with his elder brother, beats him with a brick and nearly kills him. He is stunned for a moment, contemplates what he has done while looking at the illustrated copy of Ten Commandments. The seeds for peace and non-violence are sown at the moment.

Grown-up Doss (Andrew Garfield) woos a beautiful nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). His sincerity and serenity attracts her. Later, the faith Doss has developed over the years is put to real test when he enlists with a desire to serve as noncombatant medic in World War II. The men of his division are the usual military kind we see in films: macho but inherently vulnerable. Doss soon becomes the subject of thrashings and mockery since he objects to train with a rifle. Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) create hell for Doss to discharge him from the military. Doss endures the test (“With the world so set on tearing itself apart, don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together”, enunciates Doss). While others do the killing, he saves lives in the battlefield. After winning the conflict within himself, Doss is compelled to prove the strength of his faith, on the face of a bigger, external conflict. He climbs up (using cargo nets) to Hacksaw Ridge (aka Dantesque hell) as a mere liability and climbs down as the hero he’s destined to be. 

Director Mel Gibson is at his best when he expresses Doss’ internal conflicts through external factors. The jail cell seems to be stand-in for Doss’ imprisonment of the self due to his rigid beliefs. Gibson’s directorial prowess becomes more evident in the meticulously choreographed battle of Okinawa. In the initial battle scene, the smoggy wasteland is shown to be littered with shredded limbs and rat-chewing rotten corpses – an effective scene to portray the horrors of war. The images of Doss roping down wounded soldiers over the ridge and running back into smoke, repeating the words ‘please God, let me save one more’ were some of the strong emotional moments; a brave man holding a little source of light to win over the darkness.  But I felt some problems with the unrelenting onslaught of violence in the second-half. Apart from the disorienting initial battle scene, the violence on-screen has a cinematic quality. The flamethrowers and the shells set upon the Japanese indulge a lot in the intense, cinematic bloodshed (the Japanese are more or less portrayed as zombies than as human beings). The violence in the later part almost becomes a spectacle (contrary to Gibson’s intention). Some of the blatant symbolism (Doss’ washing off the blood; Doss holding on to bible juxtaposed with a Japanese general committing harakiri, etc) too reduces the otherwise impressively balanced direction.  

Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s script is full of broad characterizations, but essentially involves in Doss’ experiences and conflicts. The script does its job to get across the messages involving perseverance of human spirit, faith, and divine inspiration. As I mentioned earlier, there are no profound moral contradictions waiting to be unearthed. The ensemble cast, full of familiar faces does an excellent job. Vincent Vaughn efficiently channels-in the energy and intimidating wit of Lee Ermey’s drill Sergeant Hartman (from Full Metal Jacket). Andrew Garfield is excellent in making Doss more than a do-gooder. He earnestly lays bare the character’s conflicts before showcasing his utter conviction.  



Hacksaw Ridge (138 minutes) is an ennobling tale of a pacifist, who refuses to touch a rifle in the battlefield except to make a make-shift stretcher. It immerses us in the chaotic madness of war, despite the occasional propensity for tiresome myth-making. 



Manchester by the Sea [2016] – A Grieving Man Scuttling through Emotional Landmines

Spoilers Ahead…………..

A young girl named Margaret thinks she has inadvertently caused a traffic accident. She couldn’t do anything with that thought. There are no friendly shoulders to lean on until it all passes away. It becomes clear nobody is going to miraculously appear to save her. Gradually, her inner fire of life is snuffed out. This girl’s story was written by playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who had made a brilliant debut feature titled ‘You Can Count on Me’ (2000). Margaret was written in 2003, went to shoot in 2005 and then got caught in post-production limbo. Its 150 minute theatrical version was released in 2011 and later the extended version of 186 minutes. The film after a long struggle received the praise it deserved. However, the fate of Kenneth Lonergan’s recent harrowing drama Manchester by the Sea (2016) was different. It was acclaimed the moment it debuted (at Sundance) and was stacked up higher with Oscar buzz with Amazon Studios taking up $10 million distribution deal. Like his previous two films, Mr. Lonergan once again builds a morally complex world, paying attention to minutiae of details, while allowing the emotions to simmer beneath the surface. 

Kenneth Lonergan’s movies don’t have the kind of elaborate story we usually come to expect in films dealing with grief or loss. He hints at the causes that has led to character’s personal trauma. But for the most part his narratives are about observing the behavior as gloom impedes every step the characters take forward.  Mr. Lonergan’s stories have an insurmountable tragedy at its center, which with little emotional manipulation could become full-blown melodrama. However, his writing is so naturalistic, humane and when combined with mesmerizing performances we witness a compelling meditation on trauma and loss. Manchester by the Sea opens up on the breezy sea of the title. A couple of adult males and a small boy are fishing from a motor boat. Amidst the witty conversation, the young man asks the boy whom would he choose if he's got a chance to live with only one person in an isolated island. The boy, of course chooses his dad, who is at the steer. May be, the young guy -- the boy’s nephew -- would have thought there’s remote chance of the boy choosing him. The bond between the three is strongly felt and the playful question set things up for the impending gloom.

The same young man is seen from an observable distance in the next scene. He is named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and he is shoveling snow outside a suburban apartment building. Lee is a handyman and janitor, leading a very simple existence in a sparsely furnitured basement room. His sad eyes aren’t capable of processing the frustration of the tenants or the approaches of attractive females. He loses his cool when giving a profanity-laden reply to an annoying tenant. He deliberately picks up a fight in the bar. The humdrum quality of Lee’s life sneaks up on us and we are dying to know what made him to be like this. Soon, Lee leaves his life in Boston and drives to Manchester (one and a half hour drive). He has received the news about the death of his beloved elderly brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). As Lee takes down the hospital building's elevator to the morgue, a brief flashback informs us of Joe’s congenital heart-condition and introduces to some of the family members. 

It soon becomes clear that the familial structure is in utter disarray. Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) has been long abandoned by his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol). Lee skirts around the town, making arrangements for funeral, meeting up with the lawyer. To Lee’s complete surprise, Joe has named him to be Patrick’s guardian until the 16 year old turns 18. Over the elegantly interwoven flashback, we learn about Lee's beautiful life with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) which was brutally uprooted by an accident. At that point, Lee’s aversion for the hometown or camaraderie becomes understandable. The reasons for disconnect between Lee’s appearance in the opening scene and now is crystal clear. Moreover, Lee doesn’t know what to do with his lively nephew, who doesn’t want to move to Boston because he worries about leaving his two girlfriends. Of course, this all might seem so familiar and melodramatic to read. But, on-screen each scene brims with genuine, depthful emotions and idiosyncratic mannerisms.

There are no expository dialogues in Lonergan’s script. Who is Lee Chandler? The younger member of an Irish Catholic family, belonging to working class of Manchester; loyal to family and friends; easily provoked to brawls; heavy-drinker; football fan, etc. ‘Who he is’ is established through the behavioral attributes than through pieces of dialogues. Lee sitting in his sofa in the dark, facing away from the little light glowing through basement window conveys his predicament. The picture of Jesus on the wall tells a lot about the new life Patrick’s mother has chosen for herself. The small matter of a frozen ground unearths intense sorrow on Patrick. Randi’s way of speaking (or her inability to speak) to Lee in the scene towards end gives a feeling of nightmare she must have been through. Moment-by-moment we are absorbed by the non-manipulative, genuine behavior and little, heedful acts. The dialogues aren’t also crisp or clear-cut to design 'quotes pictures' for desktop wallpaper. It’s an antithesis from that manner of writing. Lee and his family face different kinds of unspeakable tragedy. And, since the tragedy is unspeakable they talk about lot of other things, which indirectly convey their emotional instability or just their awkwardness. 

Lonergan punctuates each interaction with measured amount of humor and misery. Almost all of the characters directly affected by the tragedy behave like emotional illiterates (borrowing a word from Bergman). Words overlap and nothing is resolved through talking. How many movies have we come across where the humane connection between bruised adult and teenager leading to an redemptive, sentimental flick. But, here the catharsis we expect for the characters are suggested to be beyond reach (at least way beyond the movie’s ending). This clumsy nature of using the words leads to some of the movie’s precious moments. In fact, we get to like this clumsiness because it looks so real. I only got annoyed when some supporting characters try to sentimentalize the situation (for eg, Silvie’s behavior when Lee calls up to funeral parlor). In the film, most of the characters in the periphery lucidly convey what they wanted to say. Patrick’s hockey coach, doctor Bethany or Matthew Broderick’s character is certainly removed from the tragedy confronted by Chandler family; and so they talk in a genuine but clear-cut manner. Lonergan’s also knows when to not use dialogues (for eg, when Lee meets George to talk about Patrick) so as to avoid stoking the dramatic quotient. Furthermore, the people lingering in the background add some color to the narrative. The awful garage band ‘Stentorian’, the earnest funeral parlor manager, and even Kenneth Lonergan’s own cameo (as the guy in blue jacket) fits well into the details of ordinariness (all of these people comes off as individuals rather than extras). 

Despite the nuanced form of writing, the film could still have been a one-note of misery, if not for the excellent directorial skill and soul-crushing performances. Due to the absence of grand story arc, Lonergan keeps his attention on individual moments. His unobtrusive camera calmly gazes at the vulnerability and things ravaging the soul of people occupying the frames. The beautiful seaside, wintry setting perfectly suits the emotional reality of Chandler family. Director Lonergan makes us dwell in the ordinary for the most time that when the real tragedy rises, we are left to contemplate powerful emotions. In one hushed-up sequence (nightmare telling about smoke in the kitchen) we get a closer look at the hell he is living in which was so stupefying to look. The other elegantly realized tragic scene is the one when Patrick has a panic attack after seeing frozen chicken. As Lonergan confides in his interview (to Avclub), there are happy accidents too: like the moment with EMS employees having trouble with the stretcher. 

Manchester by the Sea is mostly about how men process (or don't process) their grievances. From the inability to think where they parked their car to the unease to contemplate death, this is an excellent study of men struggling for relief and self-control. It’s all finely expressed in Casey Affleck’s most understated performance as Lee. By the end of the film, Lee doesn’t attain any catharsis or have figured out how to forgive and move on, but his cheerlessness and unyielding nature are astonishing to behold. Lee easily brushes away the sympathies are people cut off from him. But, his posture changes with unrelenting behavior of Patrick or with breakdown of ex-wife Randi. In those brief moments, Affleck makes Lee to open up his heart, but the onslaught of pain forces him to close up quickly. These little moments of emotional passage are impressively portrayed. Naturally, two scenes standout in terms of performances: the one in lawyer’s office, which flashes back to the past; the stammered, overlapped conversation between Lee and Randi. Nevertheless, I loved watching all of the smallest gestures too. In one scene after the bar-fight, Lee’s minor injuries are tended by George’s wife. For a moment, he leans on her and softly cries – one of the rare showcases of Lee’s vulnerability. Altogether, a grand performance that neatly fits with Lonergan’s refusal to dramatize effects of trauma. 



Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (137 minutes) isn’t exactly a tearjerker, although its story-line seems to say the opposite. It’s not the kind of film where few tears wash away the emotions of grief, lingering in the narrative surface. The atmosphere of grief here is more profound.  It doesn’t provide any easy answers or even try to pretend that it has answers. Traumatized characters embrace their family members, but it doesn’t lead to redemption or solace. We can’t even say if the grieved characters are chasing for redemption. Grief has rarely looked this real, unexaggerated, and yet very interesting enough to watch on-screen. 



Nocturnal Animals [2016] – A Slyly Complex Revenge Thriller

Spoilers Ahead…………..

Fashion-designer turned film-maker Tom Ford’s second feature film Nocturnal Animals (2016) is tightly packaged with two contrasting story lines. One is about a sad woman leading vacuous, bourgeois life whose inner pain doesn’t appear on her stiff face. The other is about a man tripping through the dirty, dry ‘real’ world whose existential pain twists his body and emotions to make life a whole lot messier. “Our world is lot less painful than the real world” are the wise words said to insomniac, wealthy art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) in the earlier part of the narrative. The pain of ‘real world’ is actually equated with experiencing physical violence. Susan with all her emotional dislocation may find solace in the fact that she is only touched by emotional violence. Yet, as she learns, violence – whatever its form – is a bane to the human condition. 

Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. In the novel/movie’s universe Susan is ‘real’ and Tony is ‘fictional’. Middle-aged Susan is married to a wealthy but emotionally distant husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day, she receives a package from ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Edward wanted to be a writer and Susan’s own skepticism about his literary aspirations caused a rift between them. Susan’s desire for a more structured (wealthy) lifestyle is also another reason. She has left him in a brutal manner after staying married for two years. Susan has tried to contact him all these years without any good results. Now Edward has sent her the manuscript of his soon-to-be-published novel titled ’Nocturnal Animals’ and he has dedicated it to Susan. The insomniac Susan who has no one to keep her company puts on her spectacles, lays on a plush sofa and starts reading the novel.

Texan Tony Hastings is making a trip on the night to West Texas with his wife and teenage daughter India. Tony is a simple, fragile husband/dad who is terrorized by three malicious rednecks – Lou, Turk and the leader Ray Marcus (Aaron-Taylor Johnson). It’s a sequence that’s as harrowing as the one from Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), peppered with some Lynchian ingredients. Susan closes the manuscript at times, overwhelmed by the ‘real’ pain inflicted on the seemingly good family. She catches her breath and in brief flashbacks thinks of the pain she has caused upon Edward in the past. In Edward’s Nocturnal Animals, Tony’s wife and daughter are abducted. He is dumped at the middle of nowhere. Next day, with the help of hard-nosed police detective Roberto Andes (Michael Shannon) Tony traces the abductor’s place, finding the neatly arranged naked dead bodies of his wife and daughter. 

Ray is a monster. There’s no thread in Edward’s story to portray him as complex figure. There’s nothing humane about Ray. We want him to be killed and possibly in the most cruel way. Circumstances lead Tony to receive the unbridled help of Andes (who is actually dying of lung cancer). When the law fails to uphold justice, the duo become ready to deliver it. May be vengeance and the violence involved will provide an emotional catharsis for Tony. If not, at least it will bring satisfaction for those reading this pulp fiction. Surprisingly, retribution only brings self-destruction and self-punishment to Tony. The violence doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t soothe the ‘real’ pain. Tony sinks down with monstrous Ray into the ocean of death. And, as they say, ‘Death is the fairest thing. It takes all kind – the good, and the cruel’. What does ‘fictional’ Tony’s plight got to do with ‘real’ Susan? Why Edward wants Susan to read his novel? What’s the connection between devastating violence faced by Tony and emotional bruise held by Edward (both played by Gyllenhaal)? And what’s with the enigmatic ending? 

Nocturnal Animals gives a very interesting movie experience during the second-viewing, since I was able to de-construct a lot of obvious parallels, which seemed like cryptic code in the first-time watch. Director/writer Tom Ford could be accused of being cold & calculated and for not deeply penetrating the character's emotional surface. These are the kind of accusations often associated with the works of Stanley Kubrick. Yes, the narrative is so neatly tailored with visuals and themes tightly wrapped around. Like Susan’s style-over-substance lifestyle, the film makes a rigid, awesome-looking statement, devoid of profound substance. May be it’s too on-the-nose (like the exhibition of ‘Revenge’ art to suggest what it’s all about). But still Nocturnal Animals is a highly intriguing roller-coaster ride. The highly challenging, jarring visual juxtapositions and the pricking pain of emotional violence in the final sequence are wonders to behold. 

I haven’t read the novel. But it feels like a perfect adaptation that flawlessly fits into the film-maker’s singular visual language. Tom Ford has made some courageous choices with the script, especially in the design of opening sequences. Old, over-weight, naked women gyrate inside a big box, holding sparkling fireworks. The sagging breasts of these cheering woman teeters here and there, unlike the perfectly calibrated frames of Tom Ford. What does the creator of this live ‘art’ trying to showcase? If art mirrors life, Susan may be trying to tell how there isn’t much difference between her soul-crushing, beautiful-looking life and the wobbling naked flesh which is immediately deemed as ‘ugly’. It’s her cry of despair against the junk culture.The menace in the ‘fictional’ universe is elegantly mixed with the emotional bruise of ‘real’ in many occasions. The image of two reddish-orange haired corpses lying in a red sofa is juxtaposed with a similar arrangement of Susan’s living daughter. The bright red-light that falls on Edward’s face is gracefully cut to similar shot involving Tony. Similar to the interrelation between naked flesh and Susan’s existence in the opening scene, these artistic choices finely expresses the transition in and out of the ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ universe. 

Loss, betrayal, and vengeance are the primary themes of the movie. However, the most interesting aspect for me is the theme of art resonating with emotional reality of its consumers. In a brief flashback, Susan criticizes Edward’s story for being so much about himself. Edward’s novel written nearly two decades after his separation with Susan is also about him. Edward just takes all the emotional violence that was inflicted upon him and passes it onto fictional character, employing a much hard-hitting set-up. Edward has also lost his wife and daughter to an intruder. Of course, it’s nothing compared to the brutal loss of ‘fictional’ Tony. Through the revenge fantasy in the novel, Edward is not only exorcising his own emotional pain, but also criticizing himself for allowing the rift to happen. Tony shouting at Andes for not ‘protecting’ his family and Ray calling Tony ‘weak’ are exaggerated manifestations of what Edward felt after the breakup with Susan.

While Tony’s revenge plan is slightly sloppy and totally self-destructive, Edward’s plan is so calculative and emotionally cathartic (it looks like that). The bloody corpse of Ray may be a much-preferred, cathartic sight than the image of lonely Susan sipping her cocktail in the classy restaurant. But Edward is the one who serves his 'revenge' cold to Susan. The revenge in the ‘real’ world may not seem much in terms of dynamic visuals as the vengeful action in the ‘fiction’. Nevertheless, it’s the only kind Edward could achieve. Through the devastating tale of Tony, he has kind of won her back (Susan leaving her wedding ring is some kind of sign, isn’t it?). For Susan, the novel feels real and truthful than the empty life. By making her sit alone in the emptying restaurant, Edward makes her to confront the deepening void. For some, this rejection may seem to be a trivial matter, but for Susan the unoccupied chair in front of her is materialization of the existential emptiness. The brunt of emotional violence lies deep beneath the exterior surface that’s sipping expensive cocktails. 


Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (117 minutes) is an artfully composed, devilishly clever tale of loss and revenge. It’s nesting doll narrative and awesome ensemble cast demonstrates how violence slashes more than skin deep.