The kidnapping and subsequent “urban guerrilla” activities of heiress Patty Hearst was one of the most sensational cases and craziest media circuses of the 1970s. Hearst’s abduction was perpetrated by the Symbionese Liberation Army, one of the many pseudo-Marxist left-adventurist crackpot cells that proliferated in the wake of the washout of 1960s idealism (i.e. the Weathermen/Weather Underground, the Baader-Meinhof Group/Red Army Faction in Germany), after which she participated in a number of robberies with the group and was eventually arrested and charged for her role in those “actions,” as the SLA referred to such activities. Beyond these agreed-upon facts, there’s little in the way of widespread consensus regarding Hearst’s complicity in the faction’s criminal behavior. Was she forced to participate? Hypnotized? Brainwashed? Won over to their cause by the charisma and agitation of its members? Just going along for fear of being killed if she resisted?
Paul Schrader’s little-known and less-remembered 1988 film, Patty Hearst, digs into this and, if it doesn’t exactly answer any of these questions that obsessed the public in the wake of Hearst’s taking, apparent radicalization and eventual trial and conviction, shows us what the young woman’s experiences were like, and why reaching an objective conclusion about it all is so difficult.
Schrader’s status in the world of cinema is fairly well-secured, with or without a critical reappraisal of his overlooked Hearst film: his screenplays for a number of Martin Scorsese pictures (chief among those are Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) helped establish him as one of the best script men in the business, with a particular knack for exploring the psyches of tortured, damaged men; but he has also carved out a name for himself as a fine director. Rarely have the former Calvinist’s directorial outings made a killing at the box office, but he has a handful of highly regarded efforts under his belt—1977’s The Searchers-inflected Hardcore, the working-class drama Blue Collar, his ambitious Yukio Mishima biopic/”multi-adaptation” Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (with which the Hearst film shares its expressionism), 1997’s study of the tragedy of intergenerational violence Affliction, and 2017’s widely hailed First Reformed—as well as a number of features that might better be described as “cult classics,” like Light Sleeper, The Comfort of Strangers and Auto-Focus (another film about a sensational real-life crime, in that case the death of actor Hogan’s Heroes Bob Crane).
Patty Hearst is more in line with the latter group among its director’s oeuvre, though to even call it a cult film might be overstating its degree of enduring popularity. It was made for peanuts with a mostly (then-)little-known cast in the wake of the box office and perceived artistic failure of the “Rock & Roll Drama by way of Eugene O’Neill” Light of Day the previous year. Schrader mostly eschews conventional storytelling in favor of an expressionistic nightmare approach that plays out, virtually in its entirety, from the perspective of Hearst (played by the late Natasha Richardson). As Schrader chose to work from Hearst’s own 1982 autobiography Every Secret Thing (later retitled Patty Hearst—Her Own Story) as the basis for the movie, with a script by Nicholas Kazan (son of director Elia Kazan) that incorporates many of that book’s passages in the form of almost stream-of-consciousness voiceover narration, the use of this subjective POV works well.
Nowhere is the film’s expressionism and subjectivity more thoroughly employed, or more stunningly effective, than in its first half (or thereabouts), in which we’re confined to the claustrophobic setting of the closet where the usually blindfolded Hearst is held, assaulted by the aggressive, hostile voices and menacing doorway silhouettes of the SLA, who alternate between chastising the terrified young woman for her failure to recognize her bourgeois privilege and ignorance of the plight of the poor, and demanding information about her father’s business dealings and political contacts. When she can provide no intel of any use to them, she’s sometimes taunted with references to her impending death (often predicted as coming as a result of law enforcement’s cavalier attitude toward and dismissal of the SLA’s demands and instructions) and other times treated to snatches of what passes for the group’s philosophy. The effect of this all—including magnificently edited sequences in which one figure will shut the closet door, casting Patty and us in blackness while we hear more of their ceaseless efforts to break her, only for the door to be thrown open again, bathing the screen in blinding light, with another member or some other members standing over the camera and verbally assaulting Hearst with a different style of attack—mimics for the audience the psychological demolition of being held captive in a tiny, cramped closet. Occasionally Hearst mutters incomprehensibly to herself or lapses into dreamlike flashbacks and hallucinations, nearly always blindfolded in those as well, lending a suffocating sense of inevitable doom to her plight.
Richardson’s performance is a towering achievement; just as there is no small amount of ambiguity regarding what, exactly, was Patty Hearst’s level of awareness and measure of agency throughout her ordeal, her film counterpart, in the late actress’ hands, strikes us at different points as having been mentally and emotionally shattered, at others a supremely convincing play-actor doing what she must to avoid burial in a shallow grave—the vision of which is a recurring waking nightmare for her—and at still other times she seems oddly fulfilled in her new life as the urban guerrilla “Tonya,” enjoying handling her carbine and even rescuing two of her captor-”comrades” after a sporting goods store visit gone awry. Whatever the situation, Richardson’s Patty/Tonya captivates us and leaves us as uncertain of her true feelings as she seems to have been, making these contradictory behaviors entirely believable and understandable, even as an objective truth remains tantalizingly obscure. When, on the stand testifying in her own defense, she gives seemingly conflicting responses to questions about statements she’s made and behaviors she’s demonstrated, there’s a sort of internal logic to her answers that arises from what we have witnessed through her eyes during the course of the film.
The second most prominent performance here is by a young Ving Rhames, looking like a brick shithouse, as SLA leader Donald “Field Marshal Cinque Mtume” DeFreeze, a figure who, in real life, was rather mysterious. Stephen King has described the “Randall Flagg” character from several of his works including The Stand and the Dark Tower series as being partly inspired by the feeling of, at seeing one of the handful of images that have survived of DeFreeze, as “a dark man. [He] did not mean that DeFreeze was black...” but that after viewing grainy security camera stills from a robbery he was struck by feeling that “what he looked like was mostly guesswork.” This impression holds up, in another respect, in the face of what other information has been teased out regarding the short life of the man who dubbed himself Cinque (pronounced “Sin-cue”): he was abused extensively by his biological father (the young Cinque’s arms were broken on three different occasions by him) before dropping out of the ninth grade, running away and eventually taken in by a fundamentalist minister and his family, only to wind up in a gang and then a reformatory for repeated thefts from parking meters and of a car; these sorts of impulsive criminal acts would become perhaps the recurring theme of his life, with arrest after arrest for possessing crude homemade bombs and guns, which he claimed on at least one occasion to have “found” and been looking to “sell” to help support the wife and three young children he had by the mid-1960s.
Probation officers and psychologists described him as “potentially dangerous” and having a “schizoid personality with schizophrenic potential” and a “fascination with firearms and explosives.” Repeatedly, even before the SLA, he was arrested with guns, grenades and burglary tools while in compromising situations (e.g. on the roof of a bank, in one case), only to somehow post thousands of dollars bail in cash and disappear. Not surprisingly, there’s extensive speculation that he was an FBI informant throughout his life, and given the sheer number of arrests for serious offenses without a lot in the way of charges being filed, there would seem to be fire to go along with all this smoke.
“Field Marshal Cinque” was regarded by the SLA membership as a “prophet” and an inspirational figure on a par with other, far more prominent revolutionary figures and commanding speakers of the era like Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton and Fidel Castro. Having little basis in materialist thought but plenty of woo and race essentialism to fuel their zeal, the mostly white, often well-educated and financially well-off people who came under Cinque’s sway espoused—and espouse frequently in our film, to Hearst, in scenes that often show Schrader to have his tongue tucked partly into his cheek and holding these “soldiers” in some degree of contempt—the need for “black leadership” of their cell and the greater “revolution.” More than one member of the faction is heard speaking in a sort of stereotypically “black” voice and Teko (well-played by veteran character actor William Forsythe) both breaks down weeping and moaning that he wishes he was black and is accused by an associate of having a perversely bigoted yen for a black, brown or Asian “savior.”
Rhames’ Cinque is well-served by the performer’s rich, booming voice and resultant gift for making the most banal statements and hare-brained plots sound consequential and workable. He exudes both the charisma that has served him well throughout his long acting career and a sort of pseudo-enlightened, outsized magnetism that makes him a perfect embodiment of the cult leader who can never fail but only be failed by his adoring followers. He’s given somewhat more of an air of capability than the others—certainly through sharing Hearst’s perspective and witnessing his thorough command of his “troops” and his grand proclamations about being destined to “lead a great movement” and to “write a book… a real book,” we see him as dangerous if not especially coherent—but the group’s “actions” are mostly limited to robberies that often go askew and leave innocent people dead, and the group is revealed shortly after Hearst opts to join rather than “go free” (which she interprets as the “option” to be killed) to have fewer than a dozen members.
The kidnapping of Patty Hearst was, in fact, the group’s greatest success, and it led to their one big PR coup: bargaining for the state of California to give out a huge quantity of food, packaged with copies of their pamphlets, to poor families in the Bay Area—a giveaway for which thousands turned out.
Though its empathic approach to Hearst’s ordeal is its main concern—and as I’ve tried to point out, it pulls this off exceedingly well with its elliptical timeline, ever-circling, hovering camera, disembodied and fragmented narration, and avant garde theater-inspired sets and lighting choices, as well as its eerie, pulsing synth-laden score—perhaps its most relevant feature in today’s climate is its potent depiction of the absurdity of adventurism, race fetishization and “propaganda of the deed” type thinking. The SLA are fringe figures who, after most of the group is killed brutally in a raid by law enforcement, the aforementioned Teko is reminded by a new associate “only ever robbed a couple banks and got people killed,” which feels like a fine epitaph for the SLA and the multitude of other, similar groups of the era, who helped detach radical politics from their working-class roots more than they ever threatened realistically any chance of realizing a stateside revolution.
Like much of Schrader’s work, the presence of the great French auteur Robert Bresson—about whom Schrader wrote in his seminal book of film analysis Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer—looms over Patty Hearst. Aesthetically it has little common ground with the restrained, austere mise en scene of Bresson, but thematically it recalls his classic 1959 film Pickpocket: in prison and speaking to her father in close-up, addressing the camera directly, Hearst has shed the false conceptions others have projected onto her and has taken control of her own life and path for the first time and dismissed the efforts of her psychiatric team to dictate to her how she ought to feel about her life and all that has transpired. Like Michel, the thief protagonist of Pickpocket, she finds herself at what should be a crushing low point, but instead perceives it as a moment in which she has any number of avenues open to her, and is reinvigorated physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.