First Time Watch: Patty Hearst (1988)


By Christian DiMartino

Paul Schrader is one of the greatest unsung filmmakers alive. Those familiar with his work have plenty of respect for the man, and many are familiar with his brilliant screenwriting collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ). But not as many people are familiar with his directing credits, such as Affliction, Light Sleeper, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, or Blue Collar, to name a few. Even if people are familiar with those films, he is still an unsung genius because despite all of those great titles, he only has one Oscar nomination to his name- for his last film, First Reformed, one of the best films of the decade. It is because of these aforementioned titles that I’ve felt the urge to see all of his films, and perhaps Patty Hearst in particular.

At last, I have done it.

Patty Hearst mustn’t have a very good reputation, seeing as it sits at a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. To me, it’s pretty compelling stuff. An unusual biopic about a pretty unusual scenario, and while it may frustrate some because it doesn’t completely dive into what made Hearst tick, the mystery surrounding her is interesting in itself.

The late Natasha Richardson gives a pretty superb mood ring of a performance here in the title role. This couldn’t have been an easy role to play, and I say that because the film approaches Hearst as an outsider, observing her without maybe understanding her. So how can an actress play a role without understanding… the role? Well, nonetheless, Richardson excels at every turn.

Having not been alive in the 70s, my knowledge of this story was in the middle. We find Hearst, the daughter of a billionaire, at age 19 whenever she is kidnapped in her home in the middle of the night by a radical group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, or the SLA for short. The leader of this army is played by Ving Rhames, in a role of strong menace. Hearst is blindfolded and told to cooperate or die, basically.

The mystery at the heart of the film comes weeks or months into Hearst’s stay, whenever the blindfold is removed. She soon joins the cause, and one is left to wonder whether or not she actually believes in it, or if she is pretending to save herself. Either way, she sure puts on a good face about it because she soon joins the cause in an extreme manner, attacking and fighting for what they believe in. She also eventually goes on a string of bank robberies, and ultimately becomes quite the criminal.

As the film presents it, Hearst joined the cause, at first out of intimidation and fear, but ultimately because of her own free will. Or, maybe, she had to convince herself that she believed in it, and ultimately came on board. No matter what the case, the mystery of Patricia Hearst is an interesting one, and I’m okay with the fact that it’s never really resolved.

As someone somewhat unfamiliar with this story, I’m okay with Schrader’s approach because maybe what truly drives Hearst remains to be seen. The film that I saw though was a fascinating one because of it. Did Hearst contract some strange case of group Stockholm syndrome, or was she always a believer and she just didn’t know?

Richardson is pretty great here, in a performance that deserved more recognition. I also really like the look and the style of this film, along with some of its production design. It’s the kind of stuff you wouldn’t normally notice, but some of it is striking. This is not quite one of Schrader’s best films, perhaps because of the approach to the material. But also I find the approach to be an interesting one. It’s a strange conundrum, kind of like the case of Patty Hearst herself.

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