Guilty Pleasures: Hilary Davidson

When Jeremy asked me to write this piece, I half expected to come up with an argument that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. I don’t watch many movies or television shows, but when I do, it’s usually something with at least one crime, explosion, and/or car chase. That often makes me feel goofy, but not guilty. Moreover, I don’t own a DVD player, so I normally watch movies once and never view them again. That made it hard to come up with a film that fit the “guilty pleasure” label. Difficult… but not impossible.

So… have you heard of… The Patriot?

No, I don’t mean the Steven Seagal movie. The other one.
[Blushing]

You know… the one from 2000 that was supposed to be about the Revolutionary War? Um, the one with Mel Gibson?
[Crickets]

Let me explain. Admitting that you like anything with Mel Gibson in it these days is akin to saying you think Mein Kampf makes intriguing reading. Sure, there’s a bit of latitude where Lethal Weapon and Braveheart are concerned, but there’s still a stigma. What makes The Patriot a particularly embarrassing choice is that is doesn’t just have Gibson in the starring role, it was actually written as a vehicle for him. (A small example: the original script gave his character six kids; when the actor had a seventh, a seventh child was added to the script.) I’m not a Mel Gibson fan, so this makes my love of The Patriot particularly perplexing.

Part of the reason is the movie’s stellar supporting cast: Donal Logue. Rene Auberjonois. Tchéky Karyo. Leon Rippy. Tom Wilkinson. Peter Woodward. Chris Cooper. You put that many great actors in one film and you’re bound to get some terrific scenes. The Patriot was also my introduction to Heath Ledger, and his luminous appeal was already apparent onscreen. But the biggest share of the blame goes to Jason Isaacs. For years, I’ve watched Brad Pitt snap up accolades for sexiest man alive, and I’m always baffled. I want to point to Mr. Isaacs and say, “Don’t you mean him?”

Sex appeal aside, there are other things I love about The Patriot. The good guys — with the exception of Mel Gibson’s character, who’s supposed to be some sort of saint — all have dark sides. Donal Logue’s character is a slavery-supporting racist. Rene Auberjonois plays a reverend who ends up choosing vengeance over forgiveness, with tragic results. Leon Rippy’s character is destroyed by the death of his wife and son. And the bad guys often have good sides. Peter Woodward’s character, a British officer, is the most honorable man in the film. Tom Wilkinson’s General Cornwallis is portrayed as a principled man driven to underhanded tactics by his enemy’s guerrilla warfare. And Jason Isaacs’ vicious colonel has enough of a backstory — his father bankrupted the family and lost both lands and reputation — that his ruthless ambition is both believable and pitiable.

There’s lots to hate about The Patriot, not least that it turns Revolutionary War history on its head. The British never rounded up civilians and burned them alive in a church; that’s something the Nazis did during WWII in the French town of Oradour sur Glane. I could go on with a long list on complaints in this vein, but I’m going to suggest that you do what I do when watching the movie: forget that it’s supposed to be based on history. If you can do that, there’s much to enjoy. Even better: fast-forward through Mel Gibson’s big scenes. You’ll still blush, but the movie will be manageable.

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Hilary Davidson’s debut novel, THE DAMAGE DONE (Forge, 2010), has been nominated for an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and an Arthur Ellis Award. Her second novel, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, a mystery set in Peru, will be published by Forge in February 2012. Hilary won the 2010 Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story for “Insatiable,” and her stories appear in upcoming collections including CRIME FACTORY: THE FIRST SHIFT, D*CKED, and BEAT TO A PULP: ROUND TWO. Visit her at www.hilarydavidson.com.