Short Reviews: The Accused (1988)


“Important” is a buzz-words thrown around in film reviews, often used as a short-cut to saying “this movie will appeal to the intelligentsia” by people who would use the word “intelligentsia” in casual conversation to show that they can use a word like “intelligentsia”.

So, without intending it to have that application, I hereby declare The Accused an important film. I’m not the first to do so.

The Accused tells the story of Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) and the trial(s) of her gang-rape at the hands of several men in a seedy bar.

The ADA assigned to the case, Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) prosecutes her rapists, but due to Sarah’s questionable character and behaviour (as a jury would see it), allows the charges to be plead down to “reckless endangerment”,  a felony carrying the same jail sentence without the stigma attached.

Sarah is furious when she finds out, and berates Kathryn for altering the charges and downplaying her trauma. Kathryn, rocked to the conscience, sets out to also prosecute the men who stood by, cheering and encouraging the rape.

Jodie Foster deservedly won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sarah, and Kelly McGillis imbues Kathryn with a tranquil-fury of justice. This is a film carried by the characters, and the proceedings of the trial, and this is done excellently.

The Accused is a film about more than just rape, but how society reacts to the crime. There is a significant amount of attention paid to the way the justice system will try to blame the victim, and Sarah’s low-class status is mercilessly scrutinised as a mark against the strength of her case, and in presenting this through the prosecution’s side, it’s immediately clear that the presence of this mindset in society at all is incredibly damaging; one of the rapists’ lawyers demands the removal of the “sexual element” of the crime in the plea bargain because his client is a college student “with a future” – the hypocrisy of this comes back to bite Kathryn.

The importance of this film comes from the success of its overall message, that rape is a violent crime, and the turning-of-blind-eyes or dismissal of the severity of the act is nothing less than inexcusable. It’s important for scathingly dissecting the attitudes and views that pervade our society and the standards women are held to.

It’s a shame the film is rated R18+ (although a fitting rating), as it’s every bit as educational as it is a serious piece of cinema. While the details of what Sarah suffered are made clear, we don’t see the rape scene until late in the trial. The scene, only shown in flashback towards the end of the film, begins as an oppressive scene of harrowing violence, before the score overtakes the soundtrack with searing strings, and then cutting to the horrified silence of the courtroom. Such a sobering moment teaches a thousand lessons at once, and if only for this reason alone, The Accused is an important film.

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