“The Saint of Fort Washington” takes a soft, benign look at the homeless. Sympathetic performances from Danny Glover and Matt Dillon somewhat compensate for the mildness of the material, but can’t disguise the fact that the film has very little to say about a major societal problem. World preemed at Toronto, this looks like a short-termer for Warner Bros. in theatrical release.
A Vietnam vet with shrapnel in his leg, Jerry (Glover) is out on the streets of New York after his business partner has frittered away their money. Cut off from his wife and kids, he washes car windows and has a plan to climb back up the economic ladder.
Matthew (Dillon) is offered up as a disturbed schizophrenic estranged from his mother and new on the streets after being jerked around by the government bureaucracy. He likes to take photographs, the only problem being he doesn’t put any film in his camera.
Rescuing the white boy from danger at the humongous Fort Washington Armory, where 700 men are sheltered each night, the older black man takes the touchy kid under his wing, showing him how to wash windows, save money and deal with life on the mean streets. In his most insightful gesture, he also gives him a roll of film.
For a time, the men stay in an abandoned building with three friendly folks, played by the late Joe Seneca, Rick Aviles and Nina Siemaszko, the latter two as a couple expecting a baby. After Matthew turns the tables in the relationship by pulling Jerry up from the gutter, he is fatefully forced to return to Fort Washington, leading to a bittersweet end.
Shot all over Manhattan, pic benefits from integrating the actors into such soberingly authentic locations as the cavernous armory and Potter’s Field, where the indigent are buried.
But despite the emotional validity of a substitute father-son dynamic between the two leads, the particulars of playwright Lyle Kessler’s script often seem phony, contrived and far too politely worked out for the harshness of the conditions on display.
With the exception of Little Leroy (frighteningly played by Ving Rhames), the house villain at Fort Washington who terrorizes Matthew, all the characters here are virtual sweethearts, good people who are just on a run of bad luck. Drugs, alcohol and crime are never mentioned, and filmmakers offer no clues as to how they think society should regard and, in turn, deal with the homeless in any way other than is now the case.
Instead of a point of view, pic advances the half-baked concept of Matthew having some holy or healing power for those who come in contact with him, hence the title. But except for the help he gives Jerry, there is not much evidence of this, as the world is little changed for his presence in it.
Tim Hunter’s direction is solidly straightforward with an emphasis on character. There are some unbelievable details, however, including the incredible swiftness of police response in several instances, and the extremely conspicuous Little Leroy’s apparent utter freedom to menacingly stalk Fort Washington with a knife in his hand. Surely the authorities would be on to this guy before too long.
Glover and Dillon get some good things going in some of their scenes, but the latter’s schizophrenia is forgotten, and the vapid sincerity of the project finally overtakes them both.
Production values are appropriately modest and unflashy.