2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Patty Hearst’ (Paul Schrader, 1988)


Within the first 10 minutes of Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army breaks into the subject’s Berkeley apartment and abducts her. For much of the film’s first half, a blindfolded Hearst sits at the bottom of a closet, forced to make tapes for her parents and perform sexual acts for her captors. Natasha Richardson’s soft-spoken interpretation comes up against a confused revolutionary force that leans heavy on rhetorical statements with little political foundation. Over the course of the film, Hearst goes along with her captors as a means of survival.

The media frenzy surrounding Hearst in the 1970s made her out to be a willing revolutionary. While many speculated that the blonde adolescent heiress was suffering from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, a vocal media faction took glee in spilling her “crimes” all over the front pages of newspapers and at the top of every news hour. As a member of the much despised Hearst family, Patty’s kidnapping was twisted into a shameful blot on her grandfather’s legacy by rival publications. For the news media, it didn’t matter that Patty had chosen a coerced life over death, or that she was continually threatened with death and repeatedly raped, as the narrative of the pretty blonde revolutionary was good for ratings and satisfied a vendetta against the Hearst empire.

Schrader’s film may take a distant stance in its portrayal of Hearst’s involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army. In early parts of the film, he leans on a subjective style as booming voices and blinding lights shape Patty’s endless night. Once her revolutionary training begins, viewers may ascertain the subject’s mind space through the subtle and non-committed gestures of Richardson’s performance as the camera steps back. While Hearst’s comrades excitedly tell her about their revolutionary futures, Patty demurely answers, “I guess.” Not one of them is bothered that Hearst seems emotionally and physically defeated as long as she follows along with their plans and keeps them in the news.

The film’s claustrophobia extends well beyond Hearst’s “forced” entrapment and evokes a nauseating atmosphere. The geographical chaos and emotional isolation that filters through the film challenges the preconceptions that audiences may have had about the case. Like an extended nightmare, Hearst bounces across the country as time and space develop labyrinthian qualities and, unlike what the media portrayed, the film showcases Patty as an unwilling participant who went along with criminality as a means of self-preservation. 

Schrader’s camera purposefully does not dwell heavily on intimacy, as — from Hearst’s point of view — there was none. From the moment of the capture to woman’s release, she was a prisoner. And in the film’s final chapter about the trial, the real breadth of Hearst’s struggle comes to light. Richardson’s performance shines as she channels her subject’s incredible resourcefulness and strength. Worn down by months of abuse, a self-reflexive Patty muses on the population’s unwillingness to face the fragility of the human spirit. For many wishing to condemn Hearst, it was easier to believe the lie than to admit the vulnerability of their own psyche. 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.