Weekend Film Recommendation: The Accused

This week’s movie recommendation continues last week’s theme of court-related drama. As the credits are still rolling, we watch a deeply distressed young woman named Sarah Tobias exit a roadside bar in an urgent search for help. Tobias has just been raped in full view of the bar’s patrons, and in this week’s movie recommendation, Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused, she is looking for justice.

In an Oscar-winning performance, Jodie Foster plays Tobias. She is a small woman, fragile in stature, who is reduced to a whisper from damage sustained to her vocal cords in the process of her molestation. Upon being inspected, prodded, and herded by the nurses performing the rape kit at the hospital, she meets the district attorney assigned to prosecute the case. That lawyer is Kathryn Murphy, played by Kelly McGillis, who is a risk-averse and frankly un-invested character in Tobias’ ordeal.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 03.07.02

While Murphy’s continuation of the dispassionate treatment Tobias has endured since her rape is of relatively little consequence at the beginning of the proceedings, it becomes desperately problematic once Tobias learns that Murphy’s lack of zeal has resulted in weak pleas offered to the rapists. It’s only once Tobias impresses upon Murphy the hurt caused by Murphy’s lack of commitment to the case that Murphy turns up the heat, and decides to go against her boss’ admonitions by charging the spectators to Tobias’ rape with solicitation.

Although the film as a whole is impressive, Kelly McGillis—who holds one of the two main protagonist slots—is typically wooden. All of the credit for making the film believable and for inspiring the audience to sympathize with the state’s case goes to Foster, who justifiably earned acclaim for her portrayal of Tobias. After she is raped, Tobias firmly asserts that her primary motivation is to be allowed the opportunity to testify, in front of those she accused, about what was done to her. Yet the film makes clear that the legal system is institutionally pre-disposed to treat her and her claims with suspicion, so that it is she who is in the position of being the eponymous accused. Mirroring our own confusion (and, dare I say, skepticism) as audience members, the plot conceit holds off on revealing what really happened at the bar until the film’s nearly-final scene, when Tobias’ testimony on the stand reveals the story outright.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 03.08.48

Foster does a superb job showing the shift from confusion, to frustration, to righteous indignation, and back again—sometimes within the space of a single scene. Yet she never appears as anything but sympathetic. Foster is magnificent (see another great performance of hers here), even though the rest of the cast is otherwise thoroughly un-remarkable and sometimes just downright unconvincing: for example, one of the defendants accused of soliciting the rape is just so straightforwardly malicious that it’s hard to believe he was successful in getting others in the bar to follow his encouragement. Ultimately, however, the nail in the coffin for defendants’ legal case is Tobias’ corroboration by a pathetic and spineless observer who spends much of the film deliberating about whether to snitch on his frat brother.

While the film as a whole is strong mainly due to Foster’s performance, it nonetheless leaves a rather salty after-taste in the audience’s mouth. The verdict is treated as an un-mitigated victory, yet it’s hard to think that Tobias’ victimization and the convicts’ denial of the chance for early parole is anything other than a case of no one really winning at all. This is precisely the folly of carceral feminism, a movement that backfired in a way that became clear only a decade or so after The Accused was released: yes, the low incarceration rates of the 1960s and early 1970s came at the expense of a great many victimized women not receiving justice; yet the massive over-incarceration that resulted from victim’s rights groups successfully lobbying for statutory changes in the prosecution of violence against women in the penal code resulted in a saddening swing of the pendulum in the other direction (see chapters 5 and 6 of Marie Gottschalk’s magisterial The Prison and the Gallows). From our present vantage point of mass incarceration, it can be hard to shake the lingering feeling of ambivalence toward prosecutorial zeal of the kind shown in The Accused.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.