The Accused
Reviewed in April 1999
Director: Jonathan Kaplan. Cast: Kelly McGillis, Jodie Foster, Bernie Coulson, Ann Hearn, Carmen Argenziano, Steve Antin, Leo Rossi, Tom O'Brien, Scott Paulin, Terry David Mulligan, Kim Kondrashoff. Screenplay: Tom Topor.

Photo © 1988 Paramount Pictures
For centuries of rhetoric, rape has been categorized with pillaging and plundering, the traditional parallelism apparently established among the three because they share aspects of forceful seizure. To pillage or plunder, of course, is generally understood as an appropriation of material wealth or objects, which perhaps explains why even now, rape is most often discussed and understood as a sex crime—as the worst, most degrading form of robbery—but is not sufficiently treated as a crime of real violence. The essence of rape, just as with murder, is in violence and abuse of power. As such, culpability must belong not exclusively to the person committing the sexual assault but also to any accomplices or willful abetters who contribute to the victim's suffering.

The Accused, a smart, bold film which understands rape to be the violent and multivalent crime that it is, nonetheless plays at times like a television movie-of-the-week. What ultimately distinguishes it from that genre (or even, for that matter, from a top-notch episode of Law and Order) is the excellence of its lead actors and its genuine sensitivity to the moral and judicial issues it raises. The film is not perfect, and the script and the editing falter at crucial moments. Still, the film is important and serious and deserves the ongoing popular legacy and attention it has received.

Most of that legacy, of course, comes thanks to Jodie Foster's Oscar-winning turn as Sarah Tobias, the small-town, reckless waitress who one night in a local bar is raped by three men in succession while a crowd of boozed-up spectators cheer and goad her assaulters. Sarah arrived at The Mill in retreat from an argument with her boyfriend (Tom O'Brien) and believed herself only to be flirting and forgetting life long enough to see out the evening and return home to bed. The night, of course, turned out indescribably worse, and it is her right to describe how much worse, and in what way worse, and why, that motivates her character's behavior throughout the picture.

Sarah's speeches constantly return in Tom Topor's screenplay to concepts of fairness. It is not, for example, fair that her "character," her fondness for alcohol, or a long-past drug-possession bust will be used against in the unrelated matter of trying the rapists. It is not fair that her lawyer, assistant district attorney Katheryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis), agrees to plea-bargain the Rape One charge down to Reckless Endangerment—also a felony, but with an easier shot at parole—so the three guilty parties can go to prison without giving Sarah the chance to confront or expose them in public.

It is fair, she admits on the witness stand in a later trial, the one she and Katheryn conduct against the cheering bystanders in the bar, to say that because of her drunkenness, the covering of her face, and the extremity of her circumstances, that she may not be a reliable witness to the actual sources of the hoots and encouragements she heard. Sarah believes in justice more than she does in any other principle, even when what is "fair" is not in her interests. Foster's gutsy, bracing performance wisely centers around that bedrock of belief in right and wrong, and aside from a trailer-park accent that occasionally vanishes, she doesn't strike a wrong note.

Almost equally good is McGillis, who is more truly the center of the film, constantly discovering just what a distance her legal training and experience have put her from the immediacy of an experience like Sarah's; she has forgotten that a basic part of recovery, plea bargains be damned, involves the freedom of a victim to hold final authority over the memory and description of her experience. McGillis has impressive resolve as Katheryn Murphy, without making her the sort of invincible crusader we too often see in movies like this. (Think of the usually-formidable Emma Thompson in In the Name of the Father for an example of the sort of earnest but impersonal "crusader" performance that McGillis avoids.)

The Accused never gives a name to the town where it takes place, thereby characterizing not just rape and its adjudication as problems in every community, but also suggesting that the class tensions between Sarah and Katheryn, the prejudices of the legal system, and the human fascination with violence as "entertainment" are disturbingly present throughout the world. This last point is perhaps the most interesting and most subtle in the film, all though not that subtle: Sarah is raped on a pinball machine, for example, and Katheryn talks out her initial worries over the case with her District Attorney (Carmen Argenziano) while they watch an NHL game full of body-checks and bruisings. Kaplan does not indict public spectatorship of brutal court cases—or, for that matter, the viewing of hard-hitting movies like The Accused—as related forms of bloodsport and rubber-necking, though the question might have been provocative. Certainly the crowd in attendance at Sarah Tobias' trial do not seem to have come out of an extreme conviction in the integrity of the law.

Speaking of integrity, I'm not sure Kaplan plays totally fair when, toward the end of the picture, he finally depicts the entire sequence of events from Sarah's entrance into the Mill to her panicked, denuded run out of the bar, which, after all, we have already seen in the film's opening sequence. Kaplan stylizes the rape sequence with distorted lenses and point-of-view shots that can only be Sarah's, though the tale of her rape is being told by Kenneth Joyce (Bernie Coulson), a college kid whose testimony is the crux of Murphy's case.

Since Ken couldn't possibly have seen the events in the way Foster did, nor observed from as many angles as Kaplan's camera does, that portion of the film feels, though not at all prurient in content, uncomfortably played-up and voyeuristic in form. Why is Kaplan confronting us with more of this lurid, terrible act than he needs to, more even than Ken's "narrator" perspective should allow? The flashbacks that accompany testimonies by other witnesses remain within the bounds of what those particular witnesses observed, so the improbable omniscience of Kenneth's memory seems even less supportable. A film about honesty would have done wisely to adhere more closely itself to that policy.

Topor, who in the previous year had written the Barbra Streisand vehicle Nuts, shows an ongoing fascination with courtroom drama but a nagging inattention to crucial details. How, for example, does Sarah manage to identify two of the three onlookers whom Murphy eventually prosecutes? Why do we only hear about, rather than see, the bartender's testimony, or that of Sarah's ex-boyfriend—and why do the defendants themselves never seem to testify at all? Even if there are good legal reasons behind such elisions, Topor doesn't explain them to an audience well enough that we understand them.

Still, The Accused has two inspiring performances and an even more inspiring moral backbone to push it over these obstacles of presentation and script missteps. I am still not convinced that I would have voted Foster her Oscar over Glenn Close's mercurial, razor-sharp Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, but these things happen, and it is hard to begrudge Jodie Foster anything. Moreover, considering the inevitably increased viewership of any film that wins a major Academy Award, The Accused probably benefits more from public attention—and benefits the public more—than the cinematically superior but less socially urgent Frears film. The most salient consideration of all is that The Accused is a strong, valuable film by almost any ruling. B


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Jodie Foster

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (Drama): Jodie Foster (tie)

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Actress (Foster)

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