Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Film Review: PATTY HEARST (1988, Paul Schrader)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 108 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Natasha Richardson, William Forsythe, Ving Rhames, Dana Delany (LIGHT SLEEPER, TOMBSTONE), Frances Fisher (UNFORGIVEN, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN), Jodi Long (THE EXORCIST III, ROBOCOP 3).
Tag-lines: "Heiress... kidnap victim... turned urban terrorist... bank robber ."
Best one-liner: "It's just like pigs to glorify a mouse."

Yet another extraordinary biopic from writer/director Paul Schrader, whose biographical output includes MISHIMA, AUTO FOCUS, the screenplay for RAGING BULL, and, to some extent, his screenplays for THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. Schrader's biopics stand alone, in my mind, as he not only epically and completely immerses you into his subject's lives, but also into their very minds. And despite this complete immersion, he also manages to involve you in HIS mind, HIS thought processes. His narratives unfold with at once the simple asceticism of Bresson and the slam-pop-bang mise-en-scene of Scorsese. Yet there's a sense of claustrophobia to all of this as well; almost an imprisonment, and indeed, almost all of Schrader's films end with a psychological or literal incarceration- and PATTY HEARST is no exception.

Her first confinement is brilliantly illustrated- you can almost feel the heat of the sun baking down on the California rathole that is Symbionese Liberaton Army headquarters, even as we, like Patty, are cramped, constricted, and entrenched in darkness.

Her eventual coercion, collaboration, and arrest are just natural steps along the path wrought by her initial trauma, seemingly par for the tragic course. Natasha Richardson (RIP) is terrific as Patty; she is our gateway into the film, and indeed into the mind of Patricia Hearst herself.

Bill Forsythe showcases his abilities as a powerful chameleon, as at ease here as a self-loathing white revolutionary as he is as the nerdy buddy in CLOAK AND DAGGER or as the government flunky in THE ROCK. He's one of Americas greatest underrated working actors. Ving Rhames, as always, is robust and frequently terrifying as the commanding leader of the SLA- until, that is, you realize there's no wind in his sails- only the rotely memorized cliches of revolutionaries past. A top-notch examination of one of Americas most notorious pariahs, and a criminally unavailable American classic.

-Sean Gill

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