The Film Palace



The Accused
Reviewed by Edward Larsen Terkelsen

USA, R, 111 m, 1988
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan. Stars Kelly McGillis, Jodie Foster, Bernie Coulson, et al.


The Accused plays a lot like a television movie of the week, which is to say that it’s not terribly artful. There’s a lack of subtlety, nuance—the action is confined to the middle of the screen. Tom Topor’s plain-speaking (and mostly by-the-numbers) script is steered by a message, and it’s such an “important” message (at least in Topor’s head) that director Jonathan Kaplan (The Hustler of Muscle Beach) can’t find the nerve to digress. Every shot is composed with little room to spare, as if an allusion to a world clear of the frame would distract us from the cotton-pickin’ point. The Accused is bereft of the sort of trimmings we expect—perhaps even need—from films. It works better on home video that it did in the theatre because it’s scaled to the boxy constraints of the boob tube.

The Accused is packaged as a socially conscious courtroom drama, but it isn’t heartening—it’s vulgar and exploitative. We’re tipped off to what a lowdown piece of sensationalism it’s going to be the moment Brad Fiedel’s Friday the 13th-style score begins to play under the title cards. The first (and, in the end, only praise-worthy) shot is of a watering hole called The Mill, its neon sign flickering to life as the rose-pink sky above turns to malevolent black. A petite blonde, Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster), comes charging out of the joint barefoot and screaming as if she had just seen Kaplan’s Night Call Nurses. She’s covered with scratches and bruises, and she’s fighting to keep her breasts from plopping out of her tattered blouse. (She’s been through the mill, all right!) A Good Samaritan rushes her to the hospital, where we learn that she was gang raped atop a pinball machine in the bar’s game room. What’s even sadder is that a bunch of patrons observed the attack, but nary a one of them did a blessed thing to stop it. In fact, most of them became part of the happening by hooting and chanting, “One, two, three, four! Poke that pussy ‘til it’s sore!”

Enter the assistant district attorney, Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis), who sees to it that Sarah’s assailants—a cowboy, a preppy, and a retard—are collared toot sweet. But she knows that she’s going to have a hard time getting a rape conviction, partly because her client is a woman of questionable morality. She drinks, smokes maryjane, sleeps around—you know, the kind of stuff that you never saw Maureen McCormick or Dana Plato doing in those antiseptic sitcoms of yesteryear. (When you consider how those actresses behaved off the set, Sarah seems almost as virtuous as Mother Angelica.) But what’s really behind Kathryn’s (or her office’s) reluctance to get behind Sarah all the way is classicism. You see, Sarah lives in trailer and waitresses at a greasy spoon, so naturally the state doesn’t feel as protective of her honor as it might for, say, some privileged Ivy League type. So, Kathryn allows the accused to cop to a lesser charge of aggravated assault, which carries a penalty of five years in the hoosegow. (With good behavior, the sons of bitches will be free to bring shame on other members of the opposite sex in as little as nine months.) This doesn’t sit well with Sarah, who calls Kathryn out in front of her highfalutin friends at a dinner party. But Kat thinks up a way to bring her karma back into balance: she will go after the rapists’ cheerleaders. 

The key witness for the prosecution is Ken (Bernie Coulson), a videogame wizard (with a most unfortunate ape drape) who watched Sarah get ruined but didn’t join his fellow voyeurs in whooping it up. When he takes the stand, we’re subjected to a long and inappropriately slick flashback of what went down that infamous night. You try like hell to not enjoy it (or snigger at it), but you fail something awful because this is the only time the picture feels alive. After sitting patiently through one dramatically inert scene after another, the audience is at long last rewarded with what it really wants to see—and Kaplan delivers. Cripes, could this fellow be any more full of hooey? One minute he’s sermonizing, and the next he’s pandering to our basest desires. Of course, the movie’s dramatic arc needed this sequence; it would’ve collapsed without it. But that hardly excuses the editing team’s bad taste: O. Nicholas Brown and Jerry Greenberg cut to titillate—not repel. Gasper Noé dispensed with cutting (as well as camera movement) all together during the ten-minute rape scene in Irréversible, and the effect was so unsettling that it took me a fortnight to recover. (If only films that truly horrified were cataloged as “horror,” Irréversible would own the genre lock, stock, and barrel.) But whereas Noé is a French iconoclast, Kaplan is a Tinsel Town traditionalist. And we all know that the latter ain’t much for truth-tellin’.

If The Accused has anything going for it, it’s Jodie Foster. Unfortunately, her beauty is compromised a quarter of the way in when her character decides to give herself a makeover. Perhaps as a way of punishing herself for the false belief that she incited the rape, Sarah scissors away at her long, sexy locks until she looks like a pixie. Her shack-up honey doesn’t know what to make of this radical change, so she shows him the door. This permits the story to stay focused on Sarah’s relationship with Kathryn, whose mannish style and linebacker-like frame brings to mind a transsexual. The two actresses don’t match well (Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda had more chemistry in Copacabana), and there’s an undercurrent of lesbianism that might make you feel a little barfy. McGillis is as stiff as the Tin Man in a rainstorm, and Foster, though she tries very hard, isn’t believable as a white trash party girl. When she performs a provocative dance for The Mill’s randy clientele, we feel almost embarrassed for her—she doesn’t have an iota of va-va-voom. (This show could’ve used a sensual creature like Debra Winger; her mechanical bull ride in Urban Cowboy was so hot it singed the screen.) The Academy, however, mistook Foster’s daring for great acting and rewarded her with her first of two Oscars. (The second was for her unremarkable work in Jonathan Demme’s ludicrous Silence of the Lambs.)

Some moviegoers (and most critics) won’t come down on a preachy affair like The Accused out of fear that they might appear insensitive to its subject matter. Like Do the Right Thing or Jungle Fever or Platoon, The Accused is a fraudulent heap that shames the less perceptive into speaking well of it. Your poor, unappreciated reviewer felt less dirty coming out of I Spit on Your Grave. Both versions.

October 12, 2011

© Copyright 2011 by Edward Larsen Terkelsen. All rights reserved.




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