And you thought those Soprano kids — Meadow and Anthony Jr. — had the most dysfunctional daddy in pop culture. Well, check out the renegade, R-rated lessons in child rearing doled out by Mel Gibson in The Patriot and Jim Carrey in Me, Myself and Irene. Forget the Fourth of July; summer-film fireworks are now a celebration of freaky Father's Day.
The Patriot deserves a salute as the first Hollywood epic about the American Revolution to successfully blend ferocity and feeling (Johnny Tremain was Disneyfied dreck, Revolution was desperately stupid, and 1776 was, well, a musical). This thunderous spectacle stars Gibson as farmer Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina widower with a brood of seven and no desire to fight the redcoats — that is, until a sadistic British officer, Col. Tavington (the hissable Jason Isaacs), orders Benjamin's eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), hanged for treason and commits an act of such despicable brutality against another Martin son, a mere boy, that Benjamin unleashes all of his demons.
It is remarkable to see a mainstream movie — the team of director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin is known for the escapist likes of Stargate, Independence Day and, yikes, Godzilla — patrolling such rough terrain. And Gibson, who gives one of his best performances, doesn't shrink from exploring the dark side of the American character.
Think I'm kidding? The moment war threatens his family, Benjamin drops his new pacifist guard and becomes the guerrilla fighter he was during the French and Indian War. Determined to rescue Gabriel from the gallows, he sneak-attacks twenty of His Majesty's soldiers from a bluff. He brings along two more sons, barely in their teens; boys he taught to hunt he now teaches to kill. After they load their muskets, he orders, "Start with the officers." The boys are nervous, shaking, but they fire at their father's command. Later, a survivor will claim that a ghost performed the massacre. But it's no ghost who uses his tomahawk to crack a redcoat's cranium and then hack away at the corpse like a colonial Hannibal the Cannibal, a daddy from hell.
The sequence is extraordinary, not just for the primal power of its bloodlust but for its sorrowful, meditative aftermath. Benjamin's younger sons lie in their beds haunted by actions they're too inexperienced to justify with principles. The rescued Gabriel, 17, is driven by those principles to return to battle. His father, driven to protect his family — now sheltered by his wife's sister, Charlotte (Joely Richardson) — becomes the leader of rebel militiamen less concerned with King George than with the fact that the war is raging in their own back yards.
As long as the film sticks with these families under fire, The Patriot is on solid storytelling ground. Gibson, himself the parent of seven, brings ardor and complexity to this conflicted father. His scenes with Ledger (Ten Things I Hate About You) — the Aussie newcomer has the talent and looks to become a major star — provide an intimacy that holds an overlong film together against the winds of bombast, irrelevant romance and relentless revenge. As he did in Saving Private Ryan, screenwriter Robert Rodat presses hard on the sentimental buttons — a tattered flag, a mute little girl, a bigot reformed by a black soldier's bravery. But Rodat also provides a sense of lived-in history, and Emmerich — immeasurably aided by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff) — finds a savage beauty in the battle scenes. The director adroitly shows how a ragtag militia can change the course of a war fought along traditional battle lines. Tom Wilkinson is a slyly wicked wonder as Cornwallis, the English commander who tells Tavington that war is a matter of commerce ("You don't hang Colonial prisoners you can do business with later"). In the end, The Patriot packs a wallop because Gibson never underestimates the emotional cost that Benjamin pays for his actions. The dark chill in the heart of this warrior father follows you all the way home.