SCREENED AT THE 2007 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: Every genre runs its course through the movies and every clever idea within those genres have their own shelf life as well. The woe of the amnesiac was used to great and profound effect in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. It was a starting point for one of the better action heroes of late in the Bourne series. But how far can you stretch one’s memory before it begins to finally break off into tiny pieces that all look familiar but are too small to ever bother picking up? Either your mind-challenged protagonist is a good guy or has done something bad in his past. If it’s the latter he now has a chance to reinvent himself to redemption or in a script with a little challenge to it reveals that one’s nature cannot be trifled with no matter how hard society tries to change it. The Fifth Patient is more the discovery route than the actual discovery, but its in the resolution where the story should have found itself from the beginning.A man (Nick Chinlund) wakes up in an African hospital not knowing why he’s there or whom he is but it’s clear he’s not going anywhere. With a bump on his head and an American ambassador (Henry Czerny) providing little help on his prospects, military leader Mugambe (Isaach De Bankolé) wants answers the suspected spy cannot give. Another U.S. operative (Brendan Fehr) under the guise of a hospital nurse tells him to sit tight as his memory will catch up to him and reveal his greater purpose relating to a terrorist cell. As hot flashes to his past remind him of a wife and child back home, another mysterious player named Helen (Marley Shelton) shows up to frequently check on his status. Is this his wife? A plant by the African militants? Or just the affirmative action quota for hot nurses in rundown health care facilities?
It’s imperative with a film like this not to go into further plot details despite the temptation that issuing a spoiler warning instantly absolves me of ruining your experience. But I suspect most conversations, if any at all, after screenings will focus primarily on the epilogue’s implications of a stronger story. Once the plot’s complications are firmly established, The Fifth Patient never hits the ground running towards its resolution. One-by-one characters come in to either suppress or pry info from Chinlund’s amnesiac and it never commits to a momentum of either shocking discoveries or the suspense of leading up to them.
Things take an unfortunate bout with near silliness when a key character played by Peter Bogdanovich shows up to shed some light and further confuse the plot. It’s not that it’s a bad performance, but if you’re able to truck in the expected gravitas of distraction that a presence such as Bogdanovich almost always provides (such as his recurring bit on The Sopranos), it’s best not to have him come to set with the facial hair of James Lipton. Those fortunate enough to have somehow avoided Inside the Actor’s Studio, Will Ferrell’s dead-on impersonation gets a run for its money before the Texasville director says a word. And when he does you’re surprised he doesn’t ask Chinlund what his favorite one is.Director Amir Mann has the pieces for a Twilight Zone episode that might play better on serialized radio than here. A script conference between the players would have to settle on which final twist they’d go with. On-the-air I’d recommend the first one and then I’d immediately begin work on a second chapter that picks up with the beginning of the final twist and work in the psychological dimensions that come with such a position. Chinlund, who has had a respectable (albeit typecast) career as a heavy is just the right choice to play this guy who is as unsure of himself as we are about him. I just wish the role had a little more punch for him to truly bust out as he comes towards his awakening. Just a year ago at the same festival there was another (still unreleased) film called Five Fingers that involved interrogations, double-twists and reversals in our point of view. That also played as more of a gimmick but did manage to occasionally engage us with greater moral questions. As is becoming commonplace in movies today, many of these stories would work better within the confines of an anthology or 45 minutes with interruptions and The Fifth Patient is no exception to that rule.