I feel like I walk a tricky line when I think about scary movies - on the one hand, there’s the cultural artifact aspect of the movie (what is this film communicating in terms of its themes and imagery?) and on the other, the scary aspect of the movie (is this movie actually scary/upsetting/disturbing/etc.?). Like, as much as I like thinking about scary movies and trying to take them as seriously as any other type of film as a cultural document, I also want them to be, you know, scary. At least in the broadest sense of the term where the film evokes some emotion somewhere in the fear/aversion family. It’s part of the reason I don’t really write about horror-comedies or the really self-referential stuff - it often gets in the way of actually being scary, and for the most part I like my scary movies straight, with a minimum of irony.
So this is sort of my conundrum where the movie Patrick is concerned. It’s an interesting cultural document, but it’s not especially scary. Really, it’s not so much a horror movie as a melodrama with some supernatural elements. But what I found interesting about it is that even though it was made in the late 1970s, it’s eerily prescient of the nerd fantasy of the "Nice Guy."
The film opens with the titular character listening in as two people whisper disparaging things about him in the other room. As it transpires, it is his mother and another man who doesn’t seem to be Patrick’s father, and the mother’s dismissal of her creepy son segues into a disconcerting primal scene through the use of some clever camera work. Patrick confronts his mother and this man as they frolic in the bathtub, and one space heater in the tub later, Patrick seems to have worked through his Oedipal issues.
Flash forward some months later, as a young woman approaches a hospital. She is Kathy Jacquard, and she’s interviewing for a job as a nurse. She’s being interviewed by Matron Cassidy, whose demeanor puts one in mind of Jessica Lange’s character in the second season of American Horror Story almost immediately. Matron Cassidy doesn’t think much of Kathy and has no hesitation in telling her so. However, the head doctor thinks she’ll do nicely and with a dismissive “hire her”, neatly countermands all of Matron Cassidy’s objections. It’s a neatly executed exercise in gender and power dynamics that ends up setting the tone for the rest of the film.
See, Kathy is on her own, running away from a marriage she found stultifying, trying to figure out who she is outside the confines of a relationship that doesn't give her any room to grow or be a fully realized person. So she’s left her husband, gotten an apartment, and now a job. A job taking care of Patrick, who is in a long-term coma with a poor prognosis. She changes his bedpan and his sheets, she keeps his eyes moistened, exercises his limbs. She closes the window when it gets drafty, and when she leaves, the window opens up again.
Patrick likes for the window to stay open.
So that’s the brief. He’s comatose, but - using the logic that losing the use of one sense heightens others - seems to have developed a sixth sense that manifests itself as telekinesis and low-level hypnosis. Kathy is kind to him - kinder than the other attendants or the doctor who treats him like a lab rat, and he takes a shine to her. Of course, given what we know about Patrick from the prologue, he’s not the most stable guy, and his idea of appropriate attention to Kathy is probably not the healthiest. People start having...accidents...and Kathy starts to put the pieces together.
Really, though, the movie ends up being less about Patrick, and more about Kathy Jacquard trying to figure out who she is with a shitload of men orbiting her. There's her estranged husband Ed, who expected her to be content with "four blank walls" and him stumbling home after a couple of hours at the boozer, now in town wanting to make it up to her. There’s Brian Wright, handsome, devilish neurosurgeon - brilliant and as sympathetic as he's capable of being, really interested in Patrick as an anomalous case, and really, really interested in getting in Kathy’s pants without being rapey about it. There’s Dr. Roche, the head doctor at the hospital, who has little to no interest in how people actually work compared to his observation of a single thin slice of the human experience, and who sees Kathy as nothing more than an instrument to assist him in his research. And then there’s Patrick, a little boy in a man's body. Comatose, but capable of influencing people and events well beyond his physical reach. Each of them exerts their own claim over Kathy, and so it's hard for her to assert her agency as a result. And this is what she wants - to make her own decisions. People constantly ask her what she wants throughout the movie and make suggestions with varying levels of tact, and this is what Kathy is trying to do, she's trying to figure out what she wants. The weird dude who can move things with his mind ends up being sort of a side story in Kathy Jacquard’s struggle for self-determination.
But I’d argue that it’s an important side story, because Patrick is the Nice Guy metaphor made literal. He’s someone who has no power or agency of his own (especially compared to the more conventionally masculine Ed and Brian) but believes he can will things into being through manipulation, through the power of the mind. It’s the idea of intellect being superior to physical potency harbored by every boy who got picked on for being smart instead of athletic and nurtured a grudge as a result. Patrick gets revenge on everyone he sees as a threat to himself or to the idea of him and Kathy being together. He sees what he's doing as righteous, hurting the men who hurt this woman and expecting the woman to love him for it. He's a white knight. Only in doing so, he misses the things that genuinely attract Kathy to these other men - Ed's trying to do the right thing, even if it takes him awhile to figure out how to do it, and Brian's a bit of a rogue, but he's a bit of a rogue with ideals and smarts, and neither one of them see Kathy as a possession as Patrick does. For that matter, why is Patrick fixated on Kathy? Well, she's the only woman to ever show him simple human consideration. She’s the only woman who has ever been nice to him, and that's enough for him to think he's in love. If that's not the Nice Guy prototype, I don't know what is.
And that’s sort of the problem with this movie. It works much better as a drama about one woman’s attempt to understand who she is without doing so in relation to men than it does as a story about someone who can kill people with his mind. There’s some clever, inventive camera work and shot framing throughout that keeps everything feeling just a little off-kilter, but the pacing is definitely a problem - the movie takes awhile to get going, and then when it does it doesn't really build up much of a head of steam. There are some tense bits here and there, some clever fake-outs that set up a sense of menace, but even at its best it feels a little padded out and draggy. There are isolated bits that are good and reasonably suspenseful, but they're so spread out that they lose a lot of their impact, and some things just don't work because there's only so much you can do on a limited budget. The overall atmosphere is one of melodramatic strangeness, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but it doesn't really integrate moods very well, instead veering between mildly spooky and somewhat comic, and it takes too long for things to everything to come together.
What ends up galvanizing (and somewhat redeeming) it is the climax, when Kathy - the only person to recognize Patrick for what he is (a coma patient with telekinetic and telepathic abilities) - confronts him with the truth about who he is (an emotionally immature man who thinks of Kathy as a prize and never takes her feelings into consideration), chiding him as she would a small child. His tantrums - exploding glass, flying objects - don't faze her. She sees through all of that to the insecure little boy underneath. It's not a perfect ending - she still needs a man in the clutch - but she does ultimately come into her own, all the men surrounding her rendered impotent in one way or another, and the standard "…or IS IT?" ending suggests not a sequel or a cheap sting, but rather the idea that although Patrick as a physical being might be dead, the idea of Patrick - the selfish little boy who wants everything to go his way without lifting a finger - lives on.
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