Will Roland Emmerich’s evocation of the American Revolution supplant Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day as the greatest July 4th attraction in the history of civilization? Don’t bet on it.
The Patriot is an earnest, inanely robust, and reasonably gory Mel Gibson vehicle, but try as it might to Nazify the British army, it never establishes the sense of panicky territorial imperative that underscored the gooey intraspecies armageddon (and interethnic solidarity) of ID4. Still, even if The Patriot fails to unite the nation before the spectacle of American cultural hegemony, it is likely to be Hollywood’s first Revolutionary War hit in the six decades since John Ford directed Drums Along the Mohawk.
What does it take to sell the American Revolution? The Patriot is a movie of cornball sentiment, humorously anachronistic dialogue, and expensive Colonial Williamsburg sets. With a house full of cute kids (the fruit of a deceased, saintly wife), Gibson’s South Carolina planter would seem a prime candidate for the father of his country. (The apparent slaves working in his fields turn out to be freedmen.) Still, despite the outrage of British tyranny, he doesn’t want to fight—he’s too worried about his motherless children (and too haunted by his own savagery in the French and Indian War). Engaging his fellow South Carolinians in what amounts to a one-man debate on the necessity for revolution, he explains his logic: “I’m a parent—I haven’t the luxury of principle.”
The boys, however, do want to kick some royal butt, and, as Gibson predicts, the war comes home—right into his front yard and up on the porch. Gibson’s veranda serves first as an American field hospital and then as a stage on which the British enact their storm-trooper atrocities. Led by Jason Isaac’s pale-eyed, lank-haired, sneering psycho, these Brits are a plummy lot—torching plantations, deporting slaves, murdering civilians, slaughtering prisoners, targeting children, and riding their horses right into the center of a colonial church.
The home attack does the trick, and, aided only by a pair of tots, Gibson ambushes and decimates an entire British platoon. The terrified redcoats call this mysterious superhero “The Ghost,” although Bloody Hatchet would be a more accurate description. Gibson’s character seems modeled on the Swamp Fox, a/k/a Francis Marion, a South Carolina planter and Indian-fighter turned revolutionary guerrilla. But screenwriter Robert Rodat, who scripted Saving Private Ryan, has performed a similar feat in stripping the Revolutionary War of its historical basis and making it a matter of emotional bonding. Even while organizing a militia to terrorize the Brits, Gibson is still trying to enforce his will over his son (Heath Ledger). “I’m losing my family,” he complains.
Less plodding than Emmerich’s Godzilla, The Patriot features some effective battle scenes. There’s ample evidence of post-Private Ryan naturalism, as American regulars march in formation across an open field to get their heads blown off by the more disciplined British troops. “These rustics are so inept—it really takes the honor out of victory,” Lord Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) whines. These effete Brits pretend to believe in honor. The Patriot has no such illusions, ransacking the screen-epic playbook to lift scenes from The Birth of a Nation and Barry Lyndon, as well as Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart. (Indeed, as the story of an unwilling dad who reconnects with his inner savage, The Patriot seemingly mimics Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven without addressing any of the issues raised by that vastly more troubling meditation on American history and the Hollywood-mediated American character.)
Gibson (who, always best when playing the spry lunatic, is somewhat less convincing here than as the voice of a claymation rooster in Chicken Run) fights tears, as well as the British, throughout. He’s burdened with the success of the American revolution—not to mention Columbia’s summer schedule—but family always comes first. The most shamelessly heartwarming episode has the Gibson clan seeking refuge—and discovering their own most tender feelings—among the dumbstruck Gullah people of some nearby Club Med. Of course, Ledger has already promised to fight to end slavery. (“Equal. . . sounds good,” the movie’s token black volunteer muses.)
Opening July 4th on the last election year, Independence Day had no competition and was even endorsed by both candidates for president. But this time, we have the makings of an E! channel plebiscite: Emmerich’s war movie versus Wolfgang Petersen’s Perfect Storm. Will the revolution run aground in digitally enhanced big weather? Should you batten down the hatches or perform your patriotic chore? Vote for an Act of God pseudo-event or the virtual Rights of Man? The choice is yours. As nominal love interest Joely Richardson coyly tells Gibson, “It’s a free country—or, at least, it will be.”
Another proud symbol of America, the eponymous heroine of Alan Rudolph’s Trixie is a wide-eyed working-class wacko who chews gum, toils as a casino security guard, and spouts outlandish malapropisms, roughly in that order. The big surprise is that, as courageously played by Emily Watson, this self-described “private defective” turns out to be the smartest, bravest, most sexually well-adjusted character in the movie.
Trixie’s competition includes Nathan Lane’s broken-down lounge comic, Dermot Mulroney’s romantic klutz, Lesley Anne Warren’s addled sexpot, Will Patton’s ineffectual gangster, and Brittany Murphy’s precocious femme fatale. Embodiment of corruption, Nick Nolte’s white-maned state senator swans through the movie as though he were the John Huston character in Chinatown—although the evil that he does consists mainly of ranting about presidential sex scandals and mouthing the blind Newt Gingrich quotes that Rudolph has worked into the dialogue. Trixie has little difficulty baffling him with bullshit. “Do I have an ace up my hole?” she wonders. Not this time. Rudolph has called his movie a “screwball noir”—elevating The Big Lebowski to the level of the Sistine Chapel by comparison. (Try to imagine The Big Lebowski directed by the Dude from a script by his bowling partners.)
Trixie is eager to please, but even mildly amusing routines are relentlessly run into the ground. The bribery-blackmail-murder mystery comes unraveled long before Rudolph can knit a narrative skein. The movie is as overlong and undermotivated as it is absentmindedly incoherent. At one point, Trixie advises someone to “fish or get off the pot.” Perhaps the filmmaker should take her advice.
A far superior character-driven romance, the Australian film Praise chronicles the love affair between a pair of dissolute slackers living day-to-day in a state of dazed, drug-enhanced marginality.
Gordon (Australian rock star Peter Fenton), an unemployed convenience-store clerk, is a good-looking paradigm of passivity who chain-smokes to treat his asthma. His erstwhile coworker Cynthia (Sacha Horler) is a loud-mouthed potato-sack of need with a case of eczema so severe that, when it’s inflamed, her skin bleeds to the touch. He’s diffident and a bit repressed, she’s furiously forward and sexually voracious. Initiating the relationship, Cynthia moves into Gordon’s room in a too-tidy flophouse, where they play Scrabble and (mainly) make love. Gordon is so laid-back that heroin improves his sexual performance.
Praise—which Andrew McGahan (the dean of Australian “grunge literature”) adapted from his prizewinning novel—has no narrative beyond the trajectory of their relationship. First-time, American-born director John Curran presents his suffering principals with good humor and heartfelt tenderness, framing Cynthia and Gordon’s self-consciously dysfunctional codependence in somewhat antiseptic squalor. (The movie’s commercial lighting is more suggestive of romantic comedy than a kitchen-sink melodrama.) The acting, however, is refreshingly bold. The lovers’ Jack Sprat coupling, which usually features avid Cynthia riding Gordon roughshod, is as wryly explicit as their general disaffection with life’s other aspects.
Memorably embodied by Fenton and (especially) Horler, Gordon and Cynthia go deeper into their respective pathologies—the movie only improves as their affair founders on the reef of unintended pregnancy (and genital warts). Praise flirts with cute irreverence and the overwrought, overbright look of certain Australian comedies released here by Miramax. Still, neither as uplifting nor as downbeat as it might have been, the movie projects a confessional frankness about human relationships that has the messy feel of truth.