PattyHearstThis is the story of the 1974 abduction and brainwashing of Patty Hearst, reconfigured as a CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI-esque horror show.  It’s notable for evocative direction by Paul Schrader and an excellent lead performance by the late Natasha Richardson.

PATTY HEARST, based on Patricia Campbell Hearst’s 1982 memoir EVERY SECRET THING, is one of Paul Schrader’s most interesting directorial efforts in many respects, and among the most underrated (many Schrader retrospectives simply ignore it).  Paul Schrader is of course the screenwriter of films like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, and the director of BLUE COLLAR, the CAT PEOPLE remake, MISHIMA and the controversial EXORCIST prequel REQUIEM.  He’s attracted to dark and esoteric subject matter, making him a natural choice for PATTY HEARST—which, in an odd twist of fate, set in motion the relationship between Hearst and trash movie legend John Waters, who met at the Cannes Film Festival where Hearst was promoting this film.  She’s since appeared in Waters’ films CRY BABY, SERIAL MOM, PECKER, CECIL B. DEMENTED and A DIRTY SHAME.

PATTY HEARST didn’t get much respect during its 1988 theatrical bow.  It was largely shunned by critics and audiences, although Natasha Richardson, in her first noteworthy movie role, was rightly singled out for praise.  Richardson, who died in March of 2009, was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and filmmaker Tony Richardson, the sister of Joely Richardson and wife of Liam Neeson.  Natasha’s role in PATTY HEARST remains one of her career highlights.

Patty Hearst is a rich girl who one night in 1974 is kidnapped from the apartment she shares with her wimpy boyfriend.  He runs off during the attack, leaving Patty to be hauled off to a dingy house where she’s blindfolded and confined to a closet.  Her captors are the Symbionese Liberation Army, a band of nuts who fancy themselves a revolutionary cabal.  The leader is Cinque, a charismatic black man who wants to overthrow the government, and his followers are all white people brainwashed by his rhetoric.

Weeks pass and Patty, after such prolonged sensory deprivation, comes to identify with her captors.  Eventually the SLA’s members remove her blindfold and allow her to mingle with them as an equal, remonikered Tania.  She takes part in a bank robbery in which two men are killed and engages in much dangerous (though non-fatal) gunplay and bomb throwing.

But the SLA is thrown into chaos when their compound is breached by police and burned to the ground.  Luckily Patty isn’t there at the time, and so joins up with another chapter of the SLA.  Without the leadership of Cinque, however, the group quickly splinters—and is inevitably shut down for good by an FBI raid.

Patty is arrested, tried and found guilty for her crimes.  The film ends not with the Presidential acquittal that freed her, but with an incarcerated Patty defiantly telling her father that she’s fed up with the media and police spotlight, summed up by the curt sentiment “Fuck them all!”

PATTY HEARST is not the conventional based-on-fact crime drama it was advertised as, but an expressionistic horror-art film.  The early scenes of Patty’s abduction, with their distorted set design, skewed camera angles and shadowy photography, drive home this point.  From there the film morphs into a more naturalistic but still quite eccentric account packed with flamboyant touches like a security camera’s eye view of a bank heist (replicating the footage that was actually broadcast on TV back in the seventies) and surreal ceiling-less sets.

The cast is packed with strong actors–Ving Rhames, Dana Delany, William Forsythe–but none more so than Natasha Richardson, who succeeds in rendering Patty compelling and sympathetic.  Richardson was given the thankless task of playing an individual whose true feelings about her participation in the SLA’s crimes are left vague.  While it certainly seems Patty Hearst was an unwilling participant acting purely out of survival, the final scenes show a defiant woman who appears unrepentant about her criminal activities.  Schrader never quite tips his hat in either direction, which is a large part of why this strange, sustained nightmare of a movie is so provocative—and also why it’s been so unfairly maligned.

Vital Statistics

Atlantic Entertainment Group

Director: Paul Schrader
Producer: Marvin Worth
Screenplay: Nicholas Kazan
(Based on a book by Patricia Campbell Hearst and Alvin Moscow)
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli
Editing: Michael R. Miller
Cast: Natasha Richardson, Ving Rhames, Dana Delany, William Forsythe, Frances Fisher, Jodi Long, Olivia Barash, Marek Johnson, Kitty Swink, Peter Kowanko, Tom O’Rourke, Scott Kraft