A talented director and a preternaturally gifted star make “The Accused” (citywide) look a lot better than it is, a Friday Night Message Special with all but one of its complexities smoothed out.
The movie’s inflammatory subject is gang rape and, worse, rape before a pack of cheering onlookers. But something about the film’s blue-collar/yuppie, them/us stance encourages the audience to feel shock and pity for its victim, but faintly superior to her too. In spite of the presence of “Heart Like a Wheel” director Jonathan Kaplan, empathy is not “The Accused’s” longest suit. While roundly condemning the onlookers, the producers (“Fatal Attraction’s” Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing) have made sure that we’ve missed none of the horror, either. Jodie Foster plays Sarah Tobias, a waitress in a fictional northern Washington community, who takes off for a roadhouse after a beef with her loser boyfriend. The night will end, and the movie begins, with her staggering onto the road after her attack. It is an extraordinary performance, bolstered by an innate gallantry, a tensile strength of skill and an observation of physical detail that completely outclass her vehicle.
Enter Kelly McGillis as Katheryn Murphy, a successful and ambitious assistant district attorney, cool and even slightly disdainful of her client. “Nuts” scenarist Tom Topor’s script outlines Tobias’ character for us like a circus knife-thrower: She’s a daytime drinker (thwack), a pot smoker (thwack), a trailer-dwelling waitress (thwack) (thwack) who even offers to do Ms. Murphy’s horoscope (thwack).
By the film’s end, Murphy presumably sees her client differently, but even as she unbends to an act of somewhat regal compassion (she lets Tobias autograph that horoscope, in pencil), McGillis is oddly aloof. Class distinctions aren’t going to blur here. McGillis’ character can’t even see through to her client’s scrappiness or her basic, lifesaving humor, and we aren’t much encouraged to either.
The story unfolds both flatfootedly and with strange glitches of logic. If Tobias’ flaming red car flaunts the license plate SexySadi, why does her defense attorney never make the point that Sadi is Tobias’ dog? What happens to the deep gash on Tobias’ forehead between one scene and the next? Wildest of all, how could a rape take place in the back room of a bar without the knowledge of anyone in the bar itself?
Initially, Murphy plea bargains the case away, convinced that, on the stand, Tobias will be her own worst enemy. She must then be spurred by Tobias’ fury to find a way of reopening the case by a “reckless endangerment” charge against the rape’s inciting witnesses (Leo Rossi is the standout among them). It paves the way for Foster’s powerful witness-stand scene and, of course, for a harrowing re-enactment of the rape as an eyewitness (Bernie Coulson) finally testifies.
This is both the film’s pivotal moment and its most questionable device. “The Accused” stands absolutely, irrevocably, foursquarely against rape. But if one member of the audience watches the staging of Sarah Tobias’ dance in that back room and feels she’s even partially culpable, then the exploitation aspect of the movie has worked against its stated purpose.
“The Accused” (rated R for the intensity of the rape scene and for language) stands finally as a preachy, empty story, enlivened by a great central performance and generous dollops of self-delusion, not the least offensive of which are Topor’s and Lansing’s quoted comparisons of their movie to the moral climate of the Holocaust. To paraphrase dear Joseph Welch, have they no shame?