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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 04, 1990


Mick Jackson
Gary Oldman;
Dennis Hopper;
Frances McDormand;
Pamela Reed;
Ned Beatty;
M. Emmet Walsh
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"Chattahoochee" is one of those true-life movie stories that are sorta kinda based on real events. Its pivotal incident is a moment of madness one day in 1955 when Emmett (Gary Oldman), a former hero of the Korean War, loads up his firearm and starts spraying bullets all over his southern Florida neighborhood. The scene as it's played is part mania, part burlesque. There's a wild look in Emmett's eyes, but he doesn't seem intent on causing any real injury to anyone, and scrambling about for ammo, he's also careful to straighten up the furniture as he rushes by.

Finally, he shoots himself where he thinks his heart should be -- "Where is the heart?" he asks, imploringly -- but we're still not sure whether Emmett has had a nervous breakdown or is just playing crazy. Certainly, state officials feel he's deranged enough to be sent to the State Mental Hospital in Chattahoochee, an overcrowded, filthy, sinkhole of a place where the inmates are treated more like animals than mental patients. Once there, Emmett suffers the usual indignities that prison inmates suffer in movies -- beatings, bad food, overaffectionate shower-buddies. For a good part of the film, though, British director Mick Jackson seems content to rub our noses in the squalor. In one scene, Emmett, whose beard makes him look like one of the Smith Brothers, is forced into solitary confinement, where he's made to sit in one position -- wallowing in his own excrement -- for days. In another, he's given shock treatments until little foamy rivulets of spittle dribble into his beard.

About the closest thing to actual movie entertainment comes when the camera wanders within range of Dennis Hopper, who manages to inject his own personal weirdness into even the most innocuous encounter. The rest of the picture is torturously routine. When, at last, the movie declares its true subject, our worst fears are confirmed. Yes, "Chattahoochee" is the story of a crusader whose battle against the state's inhumane treatment of its mental patients provokes widespread reforms. But the way the film is shaped, with its opening voice-overs about heroism and its pointless domestic squabbles between Emmett and his wife (Frances McDormand), this plays almost like an afterthought.

In dramatic terms, the film's high point comes when Oldman shaves off the phony beard billowing out like a cloud of bus exhaust from under his chin. (I know what was making him crazy -- it was the fumes from all that spirit gum.) For Oldman, who's one of the screen's most talented actors, this chin business was pretty much the whole character -- that and the kudzu-choked Southern accent. It's all Jackson and screenwriter James Hicks have given him to play. For the actor, the shave is loaded with meaning. The razor is his liberation. Close, clean, done.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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