Though it gets high marks for good intentions, THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON, a problem movie about homelessness, does not succeed dramatically.
Matthew (Matt Dillon), a schizophrenic estranged from his mother and unable to navigate the maze of social service agencies that might help him, finds himself homeless after the single room occupancy hotel in which he has been living is demolished. Jerry (Danny Glover) is a veteran of the
streets. A Vietnam vet with shrapnel in his leg and a broken marriage and failed business behind him, he's an old hand at making do in shelters and squats. The two men meet in a Fort Washington shelter and Jerry takes naive, sweet-natured Matthew under his wing, sharing with the younger man his
dream of earning enough money for an apartment by washing car windows.
They're soon inseparable, and after Matthew has a run-in with Little Leroy (Ving Rhames), the shelter's resident bully, they move to a series of temporary quarters, including an abandoned van and a condemned building, where they befriend elderly Spits (Joe Seneca), Rosario (Rick Avila), and his
beatifically pregnant girlfriend, Tamsen (Nina Siemaszko). Together, the five vagrants form a supportive community, which is all too quickly sundered by reality. Tamsen falls down a flight of stairs and loses her baby; Rosario vents his frustration on a motorist who objects to having his windows
washed; and Matthew and Jerry are separated just long enough for Matthew to be sent back to the shelter, where Little Leroy kills him. Matthew is buried in Potter's Field, and Jerry returns to his hand-to-mouth life.
THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON is the sort of movie old-time mogul Louis B. Mayer had in mind when he advised filmmakers to leave the messages to Western Union. It proceeds from the position that homeless people are kinder and gentler--more loyal, loving, and responsible than the teeming masses of
taxpayers who, Jerry observes didactically, are only a paycheck away from homelessness themselves. Matthew is the titular saint, though the healing power of his hands is treated carelessly and one never knows quite what to make of it; is he simply a talented masseur, or are we really meant to
believe he has miraculous abilities?
The film's simplistic point of view is understandable. Its driving purpose is to engender sympathy for people whom the average moviegoer tries to ignore, so it errs on the side of accentuating the positive. But the result is negative; THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON rings terribly false, painting
homeless people in impossibly rosy tones and sidestepping issues that are inextricably bound up with homelessness, including drug and alcohol abuse, and even mental illness. We are told that Matthew is schizophrenic, but his behavior suggests nothing more than social awkwardness and a low IQ.
Screenwriter Lyle Kessler and director Tim Hunter do their subject a disservice by attempting to whitewash it, and risk doing more harm than good by embracing the cliches of the "retarded/insane/homeless/crippled/deformed people are wiser/more spiritually enlightened than the rest of us"
myth--one suscribed to, in varying degrees, by 1993's BENNY AND JOON, THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE, and WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?
Matt Dillon, whose male-model features often obscure his gifts as an actor, delivers a fine performance as Matthew (given the shortcomings of the script), and Danny Glover is appropriately paternal as Jerry. The rest of the cast settles for stereotypical portrayals of one-note characters: the
uncaring bureaucrat, the macho latin with the heart of gold, the pregnant madonna, the kindly old coot, etc.
THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON is at its best when it observes the wearying, degrading particulars of life without a home; it's hard not to feel pity and shame when Jerry tells Matthew to stick his battered shoes under the legs of his cot so they won't be stolen by other shelter patrons during the
night. In its documentation of such minutiae, the film exploits the medium's ability to show things that might otherwise not be seen. It's at its worst when it trades in symbols, like the empty camera Matthew uses to take "pictures" of the world around him. (Adult situations, violence.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1993
- Rating: R
- Review: Though it gets high marks for good intentions, THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON, a problem movie about homelessness, does not succeed dramatically. Matthew (Matt Dillon), a schizophrenic estranged from his mother and unable to navigate the maze of social se… (more)