Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Accused

I thought the post on this 1988 film would be a good one to announce the publication of my new novel, The Bigger Picture. The link to Amazon is: (
All of my earnings will be donated to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. It is a mystery for movie lovers, like its prequel, Out of the Picture. The new story deals with the double sexual standard and sexual abuse of women, as does this groundbreaking motion picture which exposes the male mindset that can lead to rape. Just like prior movies discussed here, such as North Country and Norma Rae, that take place many years back, it is important to expose the sexual exploitation of women that has occurred even in recent times, and which has sparked the current #MeToo movement.
The title itself suggests an ambiguity, since those brought to trial for rape and the men who encourage the violent act should be considered “the accused.” However, in a male-dominated society that excuses men for giving into their baser sexual instincts, and puts the blame on women for arousing them, the rape victim is the one who is essentially put on trial, and becomes “the accused.”

The first shot in the film is of the place where the rape takes place. It is a bar called “The Mill,” and the name suggests being “put through the mill,” that is, afflicting someone with anguish and suffering, which is what Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster, winning her first Oscar for this role) is going through. The sign for The Mill consists of arrows sequentially lighting up, simulating forward motion, as if pointing to an entrance. The image, given the horrible acts going on inside, implies sexual penetration. At this point, we do not see the assault, but witness Sarah running out of the bar, clutching at her ripped clothing, and screaming. She gets a ride from a trucker to a hospital. And, as in North Country, there is a male, in this case Ken Joyce (Bernie Coulson), who has some sense of decency, and who anonymously calls in the rape from a pay phone.
At the hospital, Sarah’s processing experience is not a compassionate or emotionally supportive one. It is more like an interrogation, with questions about her  sexual history. While one woman questions her, another barks commands at Sarah to pose for pictures. It is obvious that she was attacked, since she has facial and body bruises. Although there is a woman from the local rape center to offer assistance, there is no set protocol to administer psychological help to deal with the trauma. Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis), a deputy district attorney, arrives, and also is rather detached emotionally, at least initially. She notes that Sarah was legally drunk and smoked some marijuana. The rape center woman rightly says that those facts don’t matter, since Sarah is the victim. But, Kathryn has to deal with the ugly reality that a defense attorney will paint Sarah as a morally compromised woman who was intoxicated, dressed and danced seductively, and gave the men at the bar reason to believe they could satisfy their lust with her. Even if she told them no it’s as if the men can’t be held responsible for their actions once they become aroused.
Kathryn and Lieutenant Duncan (Terry David Mulligan) say that The Mill was still open and they ask Sarah to go with them to identify her attackers. Sarah agrees, although she appears reluctant since it is a very traumatizing request to go back to the place she was victimized just a few hours earlier. Sarah’s car is still in the parking lot, and the license plate reads “Sexy Sadie” (from the Beatles song), which seems on the surface to compromise Sarah, until we later learn that it refers to her dog’s name. This clarifying information indicates that surface appearance does not always tell the whole story about a person. Sarah identifies one man, Danny (Woody Brown), and another, Kurt (Kim Kondrashoff), who raped her. A third, a college student named Bob (Steve Antin), is not present.
Kathryn takes Sarah to her home. She is poor, living in a trailer, and she says that her live-in boyfriend Larry (Tim O’Brien) likes to get stoned and fall asleep. Kathryn realizes that someone, like Sarah, coming from a lower social class, has a strike against her, since the tendency of those more economically successful citizens is to blame those below them for being failures. Of course, this attitude is a generalization that does not take into account individual situations, and how difficult it is to break out of an environment that fosters a feeling of helplessness (as was discussed in Winter’s Bone and Frozen River). Sarah’s obsession with astrology suggests her tendency to believe that one can’t control his or her destiny.

Sarah confides to Kathryn that her father left the family right after Sarah was born, and the departure probably instilled a sense of guilt and unworthiness in Sarah as a child. She tells Kathryn that she hopes she doesn’t look too beaten up because Larry likes to touch her face. Instead of being concerned about herself, and expecting support from her boyfriend, she, along with most girls growing up, place an inordinate amount of stress on physical appearance, since they have been taught that sexual appeal is their most important characteristic. Her boyfriend Larry is clueless as to how to be emotionally supportive after the assault, asking Sarah if she wants to go out for a ride, and when she says no, he leaves. He just wants to escape and not deal with what for him is an uncomfortable situation. Sarah calls her mother, reaching out for some comfort, but not wanting to admit that she was raped. Her mom immediately undermines Sarah’s self-worth by asking if she called because Sarah lost her job. She then says Sarah probably called to ask for money, and must be in some sort of “trouble” that her mother assumes is always Sarah’s fault. Mom’s already had her most recent boyfriend leave her, so she is not a good model for Sarah on building worthwhile relationships. Sarah wants to visit her for a while, looking for a safe place to recover from her attack. But, her mother says she is leaving for Florida, showing how the people who should care for Sarah abandon her when she needs them the most.
After Sarah identifies Bob, the third rapist, at the college he attends, the police arrest him, and the trial begins. Kathryn is outnumbered by males as there are three men acting as the defense attorneys, and the judge is a man. In addition, Bob’s family is rich, so wealth adds leverage to sexism, and Sarah is the underdog in the case. At her job as a waitress Sarah becomes angry as she hears on the TV that the young men are released on bail, and the reporter says the defense lawyers are saying that there was no rape, the sex being consensual. This assertion is what lawyers make today concerning those accused of sexual misconduct. At a bar where the TV news is also shown, Bob gets up and takes a bow, acknowledging the success of the spin on the truth, as the numerous men around him shout their approval. The male cheers here echo the ones we later hear when the rape is described, and it points to the conspiracy of men who join together to allow sexual abuse to occur. There is one male not yelling his support. There is a shot of Ken, the one who called 911 after the rape, with a disgusted look on his face.

Kathryn visits Sarah and confronts her with the facts about the young woman’s drinking, and her sexy clothes and dancing at the bar. Sarah echoes the rape center woman and says that none of that has anything to do with the violence against her. Sarah, who seemed broken and weak-voiced at the hospital, is becoming enraged at the way she was and is being treated, and her anger empowers her to fight for herself. Kathryn asks if Sarah ever had multiple sexual partners at one time, if she ever had sexually transmitted diseases, or abortions, or whether she ever asked a sexual partner to hit her. She was also arrested once, and Sarah explains that she was helping a friend move, a cop stopped them because of a busted taillight, and he found drugs inside the friend’s stuff. Kathryn says that the defense will use that and ask all those personal questions to paint her as a lowlife to discredit Sarah’s account of the assault (which is what we saw in North Country). Kathryn wants to know if Sarah will endure this second kind of attack, a legal one, in court. Sarah says she wants the men put away.

Kathryn goes to The Mill and questions Sally Fraser (Ann Hearn), who is a waitress at the bar and a friend of Sarah. Sally says she believes Sarah’s story, but couldn’t see what was going on in the back room, where the rape took place, because it was blocked by several men. She says there was one man there who had a scorpion tattoo on his arm.

Kathryn attends a hockey game with her boss, District Attorney Paul Rudolph (Carmen Argenziano), who yells encouragement to the players as they engage in aggressive action. Kathryn cringes at the violence of the sport. The scene reflects the activity of the males at the bar, where primal male brutality is encouraged. The DA tells her to make a deal and charge the three men with a lesser offense because she can’t make the rape charge stick. He says they will only do six months, but at least it’s a win for his office, which is what he cares about, not true justice. Although she wanted second degree rape which would carry up to five years in prison, Kathryn has to bargain with the defense attorneys, and she takes a plea of “reckless endangerment,”

Again, Sarah hears what happened on the television, and she fumes because the reporter says that the plea bargain was made because she would have been a weak witness for the prosecution. Sarah barges in on Kathryn’s upper-class dinner party to yell at the prosecutor for selling her out, and not even telling her about the deal, thus depriving Sarah of a chance to tell her side of the story. The setting of the scene is a very effective one, since it stresses how those of an affluent social class go about their carefree existence while they distance themselves from the suffering of those who they have helped to marginalize.
Sarah returns home and cuts her hair. This action occurs in a number of films when a woman is going through a change in her life (Rosemary’s Baby, Legends of the Fall, and Elizabeth come to mind). In this case, Sarah’s look resembles a rooster (or maybe think Rod Stewart). It implies that she is losing the softness of the traditional female look and is bristling for a cock fight against the masculine gender. When her boyfriend, Larry, sees the new hairdo, he is at first taken aback, and then, still clueless as how to deal with Sarah’s plight, starts to kiss her, misinterpreting her new appearance as an invitation to have sex. In this way, he is just like the men at The Mill, and it ties him in with the sexually aggressive male mindset. She of course is not ready for any intimacy, and pushes him off. He is then unsympathetic, asking when is she “going to get over this. It’s boring,” as if being raped is something easy to put behind a woman. The use of the word “boring” shows how Larry, like the other men, is only interested in his own gratification. Sarah, becoming more empowered by her anger at the way she is being mistreated, kicks Larry out.

In a supermarket parking lot, one of the men who was at the bar, Cliff Albrect (Leo Rossi) recognizes Sarah’s license plate and taunts her as she approaches her car. He makes lewd gestures. He says to her “Do you want to play pinball,” which is a crude reference to the fact that Sarah was raped on a pinball machine at the bar. She tries to flee, but Cliff blocks the exit with his truck. Sarah lets loose her anger, ramming his truck with her car, reversing the violence that was done to her. Kathryn visits the hospital where Sarah is being treated for injuries sustained in her vehicular attack. Kathryn encounters Cliff, having been treated for a facial wound, and notices a scorpion tattoo on his arm, the one Sally described. Kathryn now knows that Cliff was at the bar at the time of the rape. She questions him and he says that there was no rape and Sarah was putting on a sex show. After she sees Sarah crying in her hospital bed, saying that she thought Kathryn was supposed to be on her side, Kathryn decides to reopen the case.
She decides to now go after the men at The Mill who encouraged the attack under a provision that states that “criminal solicitation” is a felony. If it is shown on the record that there was an actual rape, Kathryn knows that the three convicted of “reckless endangerment” will serve their full five year terms once the parole board knows the facts surrounding their criminal activity. The DA tells Kathryn he doesn’t want the office to expend time and money on the case, which will make his department look badly when she loses over some guys who were just “cheering and clapping.” Of course, he totally misses the point of how those men contributed to the assault, and the DA thus joins the male conspiracy that allows violence against women. Kathryn says she will sue the department, and knows about shady dealings there that she will expose if she isn’t allowed to try the case. The DA gives in, but says Kathryn is through after the trial, which shows how much Kathryn is now willing to sacrifice in order to fight, along with Sarah, for justice.

Sally identifies the men at the bar in a lineup. However, in an interview in Kathryn’s office, Sally says that Sarah on the night of the rape, after her fight with Larry over his cheating on her, was blowing off some steam. So, she said to Sally at The Mill that she thought Bob, the college student, was cute, and maybe she should take the guy home and have sex with him in front of Larry to get back at him. Sally says that Sarah was just joking, but Kathryn knows she can’t use Sally as a witness on behalf of Sarah, since her testimony will undermine Sarah’s contention that she was raped. This scene shows how difficult it was, given the prejudicial attitudes at the time toward female sexuality and social class status, to get a sexual assault conviction.

Kathryn returns to The Mill to get a feel for the place. She sees the pinball machine in the back room on which Sarah was raped. It has a drawing of a sexy female cheerleader smiling with her bottom stuffed in a basketball net. The title of the game is “Slam Dunk.” The phrase, given the illustration, contains implications of sexual violence toward women. It represents the wider male conspiracy, through commercialization, which sexually objectifies women. There is a video display that shows the names of high pinball scorers by date. On the day of the rape, she sees the name “Ken.” This part of the plot is a little shaky, since somehow Kathryn decides that she should get the yearbook for the year that Bob graduated, and she finds a “Ken” in there. She has Ken’s picture, and she finds him on the college campus. She has listened to the 911 recording of the young man who called in the rape, and she recognizes that it was Ken’s voice when she talks with him. Ken, at first, says he didn’t see anything, but then relents and, it is implied, admits the truth to Kathryn.
At the trial, Sarah verbally recounts the events of the night of the assault. She says that she danced with Danny, he kissed her, then attacked her on the pinball machine while she was held down by Bob and Kurt, and they then took turns raping her. She says that she closed her eyes at one point so as not to see what was happening to her. She said she finally was able to kick her last assailant and run out of the bar. The defense attorney asks her if she ever shouted “rape,” or yelled for the police to be contacted. Sarah said the only word she was able to say, was “No,” which the attorney implies was not a strong enough attempt to stop what was going on. The defense says that since she had her eyes closed, had been drinking and smoking pot, she could not identify the men accused of urging the others to commit rape.

Ken visits Bob in prison, and assures him that his testimony will not harm him. But, Bob knows how a guilty verdict on those on trial will extend his sentence. He urges Ken to just say he drank too much that night and couldn’t remember anything. Ken says he doesn’t want to lie, and is torn between his allegiance to other men and his revulsion toward the crime committed. He goes to the DA building and is accompanied by the DA to Kathyrn’s office where she is talking with Sarah. The DA says Ken is recanting his testimony. While the DA and Kathryn talk outside, Sarah accuses Ken of seeing her as a lowlife who deserves what she got. Sarah then sees that Ken feels ashamed, and she says that they were both scared of what happened.

Ken takes the stand and now is the first time in the film that we get a visual account of what happened at The Mill. Ken saw and heard it all. Sarah was flirtatious and danced seductively. She did allow Danny to kiss her, but when things started to get out of hand, she tried to stop him. Ken tells how the defendants exhorted the others to rape Sarah, urging Kurt to prove his manhood by stepping up sexually. The vileness of their words is obvious as they chant “1,2,3,4, poke that pussy ‘till its sore.” Cliff, the guy with the scorpion tattoo (the illustration is also on a pinball machine at The Mill, symbolizing his and the other men’s venomous nature?) is the chief cheerleader for the rapists.
The defense in its summation argues that there are no other witnesses except Ken to corroborate that the defendants encouraged the rape. He says that Ken felt overwhelming guilt for allowing the assault to take place (which under the law is not a crime), and felt the need to rid his guilt by getting others present at The Mill to pay for what happened. Kathryn urges the jury to consider the facts concerning the physical brutality that Sarah sustained and the genuineness of Ken’s testimony.

While waiting for the jury to decide, Sarah tells Kathryn that she worked up her astrological chart. Although Kathryn was previously resistant to hear about this topic, she now lets Sarah talk about it. Sarah says that the chart shows Kathryn to be a strong person, with legal ability, who could become president. Kathyrn asks Sarah what does her own chart show? Sarah says her strengths lie in the areas of feelings, faith, and intuition. Even though Sarah believes in destiny, she has moved away from a helpless viewpoint to an empowered one.
The verdict is guilty, and Sarah and Kathryn exit the courthouse triumphant. A postscript says that there is a rape reported every six minutes. In one out of four incidents, two or more assailants were involved, emphasizing how males join together to inflict their sexual violence. Although these statistics relate to 1988, the accounts reported by women currently show that sexual violence has continued. According to Ken’s testimony, when the character of Sally approached the back room, Cliff shouts to her, “You’re next.” It is like he is saying to all the women in the audience that if we allow this brotherhood of sexual abuse to continue, then all females are at risk.

The next film is Elizabeth.

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