May 27, 2011
Coming off the commercial and critical failure that was Light of Day (1987), Paul Schrader went on to direct Patty Hearst (1988), a low budget docudrama about the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974. Based on her 1982 autobiography Every Secret Thing, the film is a gritty account of how the SLA attempted to brainwash the newspaper heiress and force her to rob a bank and become a revolutionary. The film made its debut at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival but was given a very modest release and pretty much dropped off of everyone’s radar soon afterwards. It has finally been given a Region 1 DVD release thanks to the MGM MOD program, which restores the original aspect ratio and features a fine transfer.
Schrader wastes no time in showing the Hearst kidnapping and in doing so doesn’t spend much time establishing who she is or letting us get to know her, which makes it a little hard, initially, to empathize with her plight. He proceeds to show the relentless indoctrination the SLA did on Hearst – keeping her in a closet, opening the door occasionally to spout chunks of their radical left-wing manifesto. The tag-team of sensory deprivation and being force-fed SLA dogma wears down her defenses. Schrader shoots these scenes in shadowy rooms with distorted lenses and skewed shots accompanied by creepy, atmospheric music that evokes the claustrophobic feeling of a horror film.
Natasha Richardson does a good job of conveying the gradual breaking down of Hearst’s mental state to the point where she would be receptive to the SLA’s propaganda. The actress not only looks physically haggard but you can see it in her eyes – that glazed look of desperation. Richardson also captures the pampered softness of a woman born with a silver spoon in the mouth – the granddaughter of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. If we didn’t sympathize with her early on then we do while watching her get brainwashed. This innocent, young woman is bullied and treated like a prisoner of war. They get her to the point where she wants to join their cause and has no problem regurgitating their beliefs. In addition to Richardson, Schrader assembled an interesting cast of character actors to play SLA members: Ving Rhames as their militant leader, William Forsythe as a guy who wishes he was black and also Dana Delany and Frances Fisher.
With the rise of domestic terrorism in the last ten years, Patty Hearst remains eerily relevant. By the end of the film she goes from being programmed by the SLA to being programmed by doctors, lawyers and medical experts. For a low budget film, Schrader gives it a slick, cinematic look. The locations are sparse with no pretty details, just stark by design. This is contrasted with stylish lighting and color schemes. The film’s focus is on Hearst and the insular world of the SLA, which makes sense as the outside world’s reaction to what happened is well-documented. This is Hearst’s story told mostly from her perspective. Is she merely a spoiled rich brat or brainwashed revolutionary? Patty Hearst makes a case for both and leaves it up to the viewer to make up their own mind.