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The Patriot

Film Review: Deja vu All Over Again

By Jason Comerford

What to make of The Patriot? At some 160-odd minutes in length, it's never quite dull, but never terribly engaging either. Much has been made about the unwieldiness of the subject matter -- the Revolutionary War -- but these arguments seem inconsequential next to the film proper, which trots out so many standard- issue character- and situation-based cliches that it becomes as interchangeable as any number of warfare flicks of late. Historical inaccuracies aside (and The Patriot has more than its share), the film could easily be mistaken for an Americanized Braveheart, even without the movie-star magnetism of Mel Gibson, whose forceful presence tends to staple the film together when it wanders off into silly territory.

Gibson has become more mellowed with age -- in his earlier roles, like The Road Warrior and even Lethal Weapon, the manic edge in his voice and the glint in his eye were tangibly dangerous. There was a real sense of iconic tragedy in his emotional violence, and he turned self-loathing and self-destructiveness into a gleeful celebration of train-wreck proportions. But as age has advanced, that very gleefulness has lost its tragedy and has started to verge on self-parody -- there's always a trickster spin in his speech, but lately it's been diluted into a somewhat reckless eagerness to please. Gibson bends over backwards to ingratiate himself to the audience -- in effect, becoming a movie star seems to have convinced him that martyrdom in front of the cameras is no longer kosher, and only entertaining the masses matters. Gibson has reduced his bag of tricks to sly double-takes, a low-pitched and direct voice, and jerky hand and head gestures, yet, as in the case of The Patriot, there seems to be a desperation to them. The Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon was on the edge, and we believed it; Gibson's Benjamin Martin, in The Patriot, would like you to believe that he's on the edge, but we're constantly pulled away from dangerous emotional territory by the underlining jokester sense in Gibson's persona.

Martin, as envisioned by screenwriter Robert Rodat, is a battle-scarred veteran of the French and Indian Wars, who only wants to raise his seven children in peace without the interference of the burgeoning conflict between the American colonists and the British rulers. Martin is clearly designed to be a kind of burned-out Vietnam-veteran type, one whose rejection of the primalcy of warfare has gutted his psyche, and while this approach is hardly innovative, it works better than you might expect, at least at the outset. Martin's reluctance to enter into the conflict is juxtaposed with the wish of his son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) to jump right into the fray. This is every conscientious-objector tactic ever used in war flicks (the WWII veteran urging his Vietnam-aged son not to fight), and the father-son dynamic as envisioned by Rodat is hardly intriguing enough to merit any energy -- it boils down to Martin's motivations, which are simplistic as opposed to being simple. Martin's throughline is so basic, so distilled, that the character ultimately becomes a signpost of American Freedom, without any of the fascinating historical complexities that existed in the conflict.

Of course, in this type of film, the pacifist doesn't remain so for long, and when the war spills onto Martin's property, Rodat introduces a cardboard villain, Colonel Tarvington (Jason Isaacs) to balance the weight and give Martin someone to growl at and promise to kill in those low stentorian tones. Tarvington is a Saturday-morning-cartoon bad-guy with a red coat on, a needlessly sadistic and motivation-free butcher that's so far into fantasyland that his place in this movie seems paradoxically proper. A thin hero requires a thin villain, and Tarvington serves the film's purpose, though it's no wonder that British historians (and otherwise) are upset at the character's portrayal within the scope of the plot. Isaacs has a wicked twinkle in his eye that never quite goes away, but his fundamental good humor is backed into a corner by Rodat's characterization, which practically forces him to twirl a Sydney Greenstreet moustache and cackle demonically. Rodat seems to be trying to find an economical way to establish an interesting character, but Tarvington ultimately becomes so one-note on the page that there's hardly any room for Isaacs to leave a multidimensional impression.

Tarvington provides the necessary act of needless violence to kick the plot into motion, and once Gibson's pushed over the edge, the film manages to gain some momentum. There's a well-staged action sequence where Martin frees Gabriel from a traveling posse of soldiers in the woods, offing 20 men with the help of two sons and a particularly wicked tomahawk -- despite of a desperate sense of deja vu (anyone remember the killing-of-the-magistrate sequence from Braveheart?), the setpiece kicks the film into overdrive and has a nicely-calibrated coda, where Martin's bloodlust has damaging effects on his young sons. The transition from peaceful farmer to blade-slinging madman may be abrupt, but Gibson, to his credit, manages to make the leap as smoothly as possible. But the handling of the violence seems a little too flashy for its own good, what with the sanctimonious preaching of Gibson in the first reel or so; violence in this film rarely has the rawness and brutality that Martin seems so afraid of. There's plenty of blood and carnage, but it all has a curiously deadening effect -- violence is only as effective as the characters as it's inflicted upon. (One need look only to Saving Private Ryan for an example of exactly how violence should be used -- as a way to unflinchingly how ugly it really is.)

From then on, The Patriot goes from one battle sequence to the other, establishing Martin as a guerilla warrior bundling together your usual motley crew of backwoods fighters for the Good of the Cause. It's every triumph-of-the-common-man story we've ever seen transposed into another time and place, but as it is, Rodat's techniques work and they provide the entertainment they promise. Unfortunately, the characters tend to overstay their welcome; as soon as you see the racist soldier haranguing the black ex-slave, you start counting the minutes until the eventual politically-correct moment where the racist and the slave become buddies after all. It may be the acceptable thing to do these days, but just once in one of these dramas, I'd like to see prejudices lead to destruction instead of reconciliation -- as they more often have done in reality. But there is a nicely-calibrated moment where the slave voices his belief that "times are changing"; with the specter of the ugliness of the Civil War on the horizon, it's a clever way to acknowledge the shifting currents of American history. There's also the question of speech -- no indigenous Southern accents, nor second-generation English accents, that would have been used at the time are even attempted.

The grass-roots appeal of The Patriot stems mostly from its rah-rah, bubble-gum jingoism, and the director, German-born Roland Emmerich, is no stranger at exploiting the commonplace American desire to see the middle-class triumph over the snotty bourgeoisie (Independence Day). The problem is, Rodat's overly simplistic approach, and his detours into sheer silliness and wild historical anachronisms, tend to subvert the film's appeal -- it's cotton-candy entertainment with foolish aspirations for profundity and greatness. Silliest of all is a romance between Martin and his deceased wife's sister (Joely Richardson); of all the elements in the film, this is the most coldly calculated and condescending. It's only a matter of time before this fair maiden is threatened, and will knight Gibson come roaring to the rescue? The suspense is killing me. Also silly but more affecting is a subplot involving Martin's youngest daughter, who's mute; again, Rodat's gambit is obvious from the outset (when, oh when will this child speak to her father?), but the performance of young Skye McCole Baruisiak is so breathtakingly achieved that the transparency of the role is transcended by her raw emotional power.

But even the strength of fine performances can't save the film proper, and the technical craftsmanship, while impeccable, remains unsurprising. Emmerich stages the battle sequences with skill and precision, but he goes overboard with the slow-motion, and the final confrontation between Tarvington and Gibson threatens to be so over-the-top that it nearly kills the energy of the character conflict (such as it is). The great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel captures the misty, rustic look of colonial-era South Carolina well, but the film doesn't have the stylized look of some of his earlier lensing; if anything, the color and compositions have a serviceable, documentarian feel that's almost too detached for its own good. And the orchestral score by John Williams, while equally well-crafted, contains few surprises; one can't fault Williams, for the thinness of the material could hardly have been inspiring, but he's performed alchemy before (Sleepers, Seven Years in Tibet). If anything, the contributions of these great collaborators show how, more than ever, depth and originality in American cinema is needed.

Editor's note: Relax! This is a film review, not necessarily a film score review, but the film score stuff will return. Thanks for your indulgence. -LK

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