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.

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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.

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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.


3 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Accused”

  1. I saw this film when it premiered, and again on cable a couple of months ago. One thing I found rather chilling about the coarsening of our cultural perspectives is that during the first go-'round, I found the rape scene to be horrific. This June? I thought it was disturbing, but nowhere near what would constitute a brutal rape scene nowadays (Irreversible, Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer, e.g., even Game Of Thrones). I was mad at myself, and a bit sad, that I no longer found the rape cringe-worthy, but rather mild in comparison to its modern counterparts.

    And I confess that I must disagree with you on the benefits of locking up not just rapists but their cheering frat buddies. First, I doubt it happens with any frequency more than anecdotal. Secondly, the problem with our hyper-incarceration is not related to sex crimes. Thirdly, the fratboys bloody well deserve it, as explicit accomplices in a conspiracy to commit sexual violence. If they actually felt the slightest twinge of fear that anyone who aided, abetted, cheerlead, whooped and hollered, or plied the young woman with booze and drugs beforehand might in fact be prosecuted, and behaved accordingly, and either did nothing to encourage the rapist, or actually prevent him from moving forward, then the actual rapists would have far greater psychosocial pressure to back off. And casting this as some sort of overreach of feminism is borderline sleazy.

    1. I might just be too chaste in my movie-watching habits, but I was actually aghast when the rape scene played out on screen at the end of the movie.

      Addressing the points from your second paragraph in turn:
      1) Frequency of solicitation charges: I certainly hope that whenever this kind of behavior occurs, the bastards get charged and convicted for it. But my point in the review was not that these convictions were undesirable per se; it was that they're not the un-mitigated victory of the kind that lends itself to the self-satisfied and contented Hollywood ending Kaplan seemed to be going for.

      2) You might think that sex crimes are un-related to mass incarceration, but I beg to differ:
      A little over 8.5% of the CA inmate population in 1968 comprised sex offenders. That's about 1,900 inmates. (Source: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/Offender_
      By 1988, when this film was made, the proportion of sex offenders among total inmates was roughly constant from before, but the number had climbed to about 6,700. (Source: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/Offender_
      Another 20 years thereafter, the number had climbed above 16,000 people, bringing the proportion of the total prison population who were sex offenders to around 10%. (Source: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/Offender_

      The data from CDCR reveal that sex crimes remain a sizeable portion of the overall state inmate population — drastically more so since the wave of carceral feminism that propelled The Accused into popularity. That's the argument Gottschalk makes in the book. I think it's pretty persuasive. Hence why I, and others on this blog, have made it clear that Realignment requires dipping into the population of 'non-non-nons' if we're going to get serious about unraveling the prison problem. http://www.samefacts.com/?p=51130&preview=tru

      3) I agree these guys deserved to go away. Good riddance to them. Perhaps my phrasing was insufficient, but I certainly wouldn't have preferred an acquittal — my point was that it doesn't make sense to me to think of their convictions as the neat and easily digestible resolution Kaplan would have had us imagine them to be.

      4) The "borderline sleazy" comment… That's really not my angle. See 1) and 3). Again, I'll acknowledge that my wording may have suggested too much (on reflection, the "saddening swing of the pendulum" bit was rather clumsy), but rape law reform has taken on some tricky ground that this film seems rather blithe about: retroactively tightening plea-bargained sentences by convicting conspirators isn't a triumph of feminism; it's an over-reach of carceralism disguised as feminism.

      1. I think we can be friends again then! And those are interesting stats, about the uptick in sex crime prison populations. Still, I think maybe it's a good thing, in that the rates of reporting, being taken seriously, indictments, vigorous prosecutions, convictions, and stern sentences were probably all too low in a bygone era of wink-wink too much to drink.

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