Television may not have killed the movies, but it did kill the courtroom drama. When you can find reruns of every Law & Order series at any time of day on and every TV season has a handful of new pilots about lawyers thrown at us, there doesn’t seem to be much of a desire in Hollywood to make a well-crafted drama centered on a trial any longer. Today, a film like Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused would be seen as a two-hour Law & Order: SVU episode.
The 1988 film was the first of its kind, a frank depiction of rape that did not sugar-coat the subject. We actually see the act – and no matter how many times you read that, it will not prepare you for what you actually see. Unlike an SVU episode, it is saved for the very end. We almost have to spend the first three-quarters of the movie wondering if Sarah Tobias was really raped. It’s a terrible position, because Jodie Foster’s incredible performance makes it impossible to believe Sarah wasn’t.
In The Accused, Foster stars opposite Kelly McGillis (Top Gun), who plays Deputy District Attorney Kathryn Murphy and is assigned to Sarah’s case. For the most part, the film is safely directed by Kaplan, a Roger Corman graduate best known today as a producer on ER. The script by Tom Topor (inspired by the real-life case of Cheryl Araujo, a Massachusetts woman who was gang raped in 1983) is mostly by-the-books as well. The D.A. questions her victim’s authenticity, makes a huge mistake and has to reach an epiphany to make up for it. Nothing is really visually interesting about the film’s Washington State setting (in reality, that’s Vancouver) and the Cinematography by Ralph Bode isn’t anything to be impressed by.
But it all comes down to the rape scene, and whether or not it was really necessary. Did the film not make its point enough? The victim is to be believed, not treated as a criminal herself. Kaplan and Topor make that pretty clear throughout, with scenes of blatant sexism (the scene where Kathryn makes a deal with the rapists’ lawyers is particularly horrific) and moments where Sarah’s authenticity is questioned.
If we don’t have the scene, The Accused would not be memorable enough because Kaplan and Topor don’t really try to make it so. Foster’s performance is incredible, and for some reason neither of them trusted her detailed description of it to be enough even though the film’s entire weight mostly lists on her shoulders. We had to see it, but not through her eyes. Instead, we see it through the eyes of Ken Joyce (Bernie Couslon), whose frat boy buddy was one of the rapists. Kathryn, who decided to prosecute the men who watched Sarah’s rape after her decision to cut a deal with the rapists, brought Ken on the stand at the last moment.
Film is a visual medium for sure, but some of the greatest films out there are about things we don’t actually see happen. We get so engrossed in the characters, their situation and the visuals we do see that we forget what we don’t see. The Accused needs to show us the action the film was about because it wouldn’t stick in our minds any way else.
Outside of Foster, the performances are nothing to go crazy about. McGillis is great, but her character is underwritten – this certainly isn’t The Verdict where the backstory of Paul Newman’s character is just as fascinating as the case he takes on. Topor gave us nothing about Kathryn’s life, save for a brief moment when the dinner she hosted is interrupted by Sarah. We know she feels a desire to win at all costs, which blinds her and leads to the crucial settlement mistake.
The Accused is still a very important film, despite its artistic shortcomings. Sure, in more tested hands, the rest of it would be just as great as Foster’s performance. There’s a reason why she was the only person nominated for anything related to this film. It’s a message movie first and foremost, and it’s frightening how relevant its message is 31 years after its release. The Accused holds up for that reason, despite the literally hundreds of episodes of SVU on the same subject (some directed by Kaplan himself).
Although featuring Foster, The Accused has never been released on Blu-ray. Paramount released a serviceable DVD in 2002 and again in 2017 that only features the original trailer. It would be fascinating to see the film released again, with some retrospective features on the film’s subject.