The Fourth of July is coming up soon. For those of you that live outside of the United States, the Fourth is a holiday where we get to, “Celebrate the birth of our country by blowing up a small piece of it.” It’s filled with quintessentially American qualities like explosions, grilled meats and meat by-products, guns, alcoholism, obesity, misunderstanding/distrust of others, and that old chestnut – diabetes. You’re also likely to find that the airwaves and/or basic cable broadcast is filled with movies that are designed to make Americans feel good about themselves. Some of them can be really good. Some of them are just okay. Some of them are directed by Roland Emmerich. While Stargate proved that it is possible for him to make a halfway decent film, but it’s just as likely that it was the last gasp of restraint that disintegrated faster than Gary Busey’s career. Call it The Michael Bay Effect.
In any case after the giant pile of money that Independence Day brought in, there was a void left in the cinema that could only be filled with another movie about Americans fighting off invaders that come over in ships. This brings us to our subject – The Patriot. It came out just before the Fourth of July just in time to pack the cineplexes with sunburned Americans hoping to see the home team kick some British ass. Joke’s on them of course, since we shipped all of the acting jobs overseas. So now one thing we are really great at is watching racist Australians pretend to be from South Carolina and make us feel good about ourselves. It’s really a microcosm of the modern American experience.
But, unlike Independence Day, there are no fantastic special effects or charismatic rappers. There aren’t even any Jeff Goldblums. Instead the audience sat confused (and probably a little drunk from having a dozen beers that morning) as they watched a plot unfold that is less effective than the US Men’s Soccer Team. It’s not just that the characters could be replaced with only mildly charismatic shelter dogs, or a sequence of events that hopes to one day be coherent enough to be a real boy. No it’s a combination of all of this that causes this movie make me want to take the shortcut to the lobby. If the actual revolution was as well thought as The Patriot, we’d still have the Queen on our money. This is the Takedown.
I’ll try to make this take less time than the movie does. Our story begins in the most exciting way possible – with old dudes arguing in a senate. Even though it’s less exciting than C-Span and the Frankfurt School of German philosophy, we get to enjoy watching Benjamin Martin (played by a pre-crazy Mel Gibson) abstain from voting to go to war with the British in 1776. Oh yes, this movie starts with a senate scene where the protagonist doesn’t vote, and only gets more pointless from there.
The Patriot then cuts from this scene of overwhelmingly, borderline nihilistically, boring scene to 4 years later. Ben Martin is back at home at his plantation watching his not slaves work when his son Gabriel arrives, but is wounded. He tells his dad that a battle happened, and that the British are coming. Deciding against being an ass hat, Ben sends his workers out to retrieve the wounded from both sides, because the movie wants us to think that he’s a caring sort. I like to imagine it’s because he runs a B&B called Martin and Doomed Son’s Farms, and the wants good Yelp reviews. Anyway, shortly after the wounded arrive, the villain of the movie gallops in. This Colonel William Tavington manages to overcome leaving his twirling mustache at home by being a 12 gallon douchebag instead. He orders the wounded Americans all shot and conscripts all of Ben Martin’s help.
Then, horror, on the way out Tavington shoots Thomas – the one Martin kid who has shown any kind of character development. After which Colonel Bill abducts the Gabriel . Then he burns the house down like he’s doing a Cave Johnson impression. This, understandably, makes Ben Martin mad and he gets involved in a crazy firefight with an entire regiment. During the engagement laughs are had, tears are shed, and some poor idiot got the shit tomahawked out of him.
After this Ben Martin decides that instead of going back home and, like, rebuilding it for the rest of his large family he should join the army. He even gets to be a Colonel (just like Tavington! In the biz we call that “symmetry”). A bunch of nothing happens in the second act. Needless backstory is revealed and Tavington gets yelled at for being shitty and causing an uprising. But, the British commander gives him orders to be more shitty and win somehow, which is something he’s totally up for. In an effort to be all he can be, Colonel Billy Bob rounds up a town of colonial sympathizers, sticks them in a church, and proves to be a total pyro and burns it down too.
The good news is that the town has a lot more parking spots since the church is gone. The bad is that Gabriel Martin’s wife was inside when it got all hot and fell down. In a rage (and not realizing that he’s now free to date) he runs off alone to fight Tavington. Unfortunately since it’s only the end of the 2nd act, Gabriel gets stabbed and dies. In the thrilling conclusion, Benjamin Martin finds himself at the Battle of Cowpens and winds up fighting, spoiler, Colonel William Tavington. It’s dumb, an American flag gets waved around and the bad guy gets sucker punched for the win. When the credits roll the audience is so happy you’d think they were just rescued from a Guy Fieri restaurant.
I’m just going to get this out the way up front – I think that the plot of this movie is spectacularly stupid. Structurally, there’s nothing wrong with it, per se. Character actions follow based on the influence of outside forces. But the script feels compelled to make that outside force a singular, Lucius Malfoy shaped, person who keeps ratcheting up the levels of anguish. He basically runs around the colonies looking for good ways to start the next act. Shoot a child to close out Act 1. Set a church on fire because, reasons? Then stab another one of the Martin boys to really drive home that this movie is pushing the Dead Sidekick trope as far as it would go and bring Act 2 to an end. The issue is that the rest of the film is based around characters being reactive to an antagonist that seems to have no motive or mode other than make his Douchbag Power Over 9000. Coincidentally, without him nobody would have done anything. The Martins are all alive, no British dudes get tomahawked in the face and a bunch of poor, defenseless pewter miniatures don’t get sacrificed to make discount bullets.
If not for Colonel Willy’s driving of the plot, history just sits in the back and slowly brings up things to do. Like, the final battle doesn’t happen because Benjamin Martin hunted down Tavington, instead they both just happen to be there that day. It’s a lot of happenstance masquerading as plot. Maybe it’s a Revolutionary War thing, since the same structural thing happened in Assassin’s Creed 3 – a bunch of nothing happened followed by an assortment of history based circumstance. Of course since the whole plot of The Patriot is about as historically accurate as an episode of Brisco County Jr., that’s not an excuse that holds up. Either you need to use history as the backdrop and not as the driving force of your narrative, or the story needs to make the historical events matter to the characters themselves. Trying to go with a middle ground makes the plot seem as shaky as the NitWitty staff after Margarita Power Hour, although considerably less entertaining.
Of course maybe you can get away with it if the characters are strong enough, but then there’s the problem with…
Any of the characters in this thing could be easily called out for being thinner than meth addicted marathon runners. Each of them have arcs that could be cut from a Lifetime Presents… production for being saccharine enough to rot teeth. Let’s do the rundown. There’s a racist who grows to respect his former slave comrade, and this seems only slightly less historically likely than if the 2 of them formed a traveling blues band. Then there’s the young Martin kid who “enjoys” killing British soldiers, and probably will grow to be a fine and upstanding serial killer. Or if you want there’s Martin’s plantation (read: slave) owning sister-in-law who watches the smaller and less militant Martin boys. Would you believe that the screenwriters make her the love interest before the end of this celluloid shaped treacle? Of course they do. But my greatest ire squarely rests on what is quite possibly the silliest character that I maybe have ever seen, which is really saying something since I talk shit on the reg. I speak of course, about the villain: Colonel William Tavington.
I mentioned in the last section how the entire plot revolves around Colonel Bill doing dumb things that the heroes react to. But from a screenwriting perspective, the character is plain old bad. He’s worse than a garbage fire, since at least that can serve the purpose of keeping you warm. To know why we need to invoke Kurt Vonnegut and his 8 rules again. Specifically, we need number 3 which says, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Something that a writer needs to keep in mind is that the character should want something, and that character’s want should, at a certain point, guide their actions. Even if the character only wants a glass of water, they will eventually ask for one or think about doing so. If a character has a stated want and does nothing to further that, then their want is irrelevant, which makes their motives about as clear as thoroughly loved vaseline.
Colonel Bilbo says during the course of the movie that he would like to receive Ohio as a reward for his service. We’ll ignore for a moment that the British Army didn’t actually do that, and instead treat Tavington’s goal as a real thing. So early on when he conscripts all of the freed Martin slaves into the British Army, that’s helpful. In fact, the British actually did this. Then shooting the wounded Colonial troops is a dick move yes, but again if we’re looking at wanting to be the Emperor of Ohio, it’s a thing you can do. These 2 things happen within the first few minutes of Colonel Billy Bob’s introduction, and after that all logic and concepts of character development get burned at the stake like a confused luau pig.
After that, you know what doesn’t help you own the Buckeye State – shooting kids and looking snide. I would assume that “Don’t Shoot Kids and Look Snide” is on the first page of the army manual, because that’s not how you win hearts and minds. But these aren’t just any locals, these locals are Americans which means they have a shit ton of guns. Setting houses on fire is another good way to get people on the “Colonel Tavington is an Ass Hat” newsletter mailing list, and apparently the only way to unsubscribe is to get stabbed like Gabriel Martin.
Which is really the point, these aren’t necessarily the actions of somebody with a long term goal. Which means that Tavington is just a cartoon villain in the absolute worst way. He exists purely for the audience to root against, but that doesn’t mean that type of character can’t be interesting. The trick is that their actions need to have a reason. Then they are free to go right on ahead and bask in the villainy. For example, let’s take the example of another Jason Isaacs role – Lucius Malfoy. In that film he is a massive hole of a character who seems to delight in making the people around him feel small and worthless. He’s also in the employ of big bad Voldemort and a bit of a magic racist. But he’s able to get away with it, since he is doing what he needs to do to protect his family from Snake Boy and Friends. In other words, when he performs an action there is a character driven reason for him to do so. What this creates is a character that has nuance, which Tavington (and really anybody else in this movie) lacks entirely.
The Colonel’s actions are those of somebody being lashed by the screenwriter to move the plot along. Instead of working out the problems, making everybody want something, and putting them in opposition with one another, the movie instead is content to have things happen at the main character and watch the reaction. This is the reason that The Patriot feels so inert by the way. There’s no sense of proactive movement by the characters because everyone is sitting around waiting for a historical moment or for a patented Billy Tavington Evil Fuck Up. When you make the audience root for the bad guy to do something and get this shit over with, then you know the movie should be sewn into a bag full of fireworks and tossed into volcano.
And that, is the Takedown.
As usual, if you think that my heresies mean that I should be burned as a witch feel free to cast your Arthur Miller-esque accusations at me in the comments. Then again, if you think that we deserve more from our movie experiences, feel free to let your voice be heard. Just remember that Sony apologized by giving $5 to everyone who saw this tri-corn disaster in a theater.
Until next time.