The Accused (1988)

“I never got to tell nobody nothin’.  You did all my talkin’ for me.”  This protest is spoken by Sarah Tobias (Jodi Foster) in The Accused (1988), a film about rape and the necessity of telling one’s story.  Directed by Jonathon Kaplan and written by Tom Topor, it tells the story of a young woman who has been gang raped and her attempts to gain recognition and justice for the crimes against her.  When the film begins, she has just escaped the bar where she was raped by three men in front of a crowd of cheering bystanders.  The Deputy D.A. who is assigned Sarah’s case, Kathryn (Kelly McGillis) cuts a plea bargain with the three rapists and gets them convicted of reckless endangerment.

Sarah, however, is not happy with this result, and she is definitely not happy with how it was achieved.  She protests at length that she did not get to tell her story.  To her, the fact that the crime is on the books as “reckless endangerment” means that the wrongs against her have not been acknowledged by the legal system.  To fix this, she and Kathryn launch a case against the men who stood by and cheered it on.  The idea is that, by having this case go to trial, Sarah will be able to tell her story to the court and get the rape on the books.

Although it’s rather dated, The Accused is a compelling and generally persuasive examination of rape and its position in the patriarchal legal system.  The center of the film is Jodi Foster’s Oscar-winning performance, and it is a powerful one.  As the wounded and angry Sarah, she is both fragile and furious.  With her lower-class accent and delivery, she does a wonderful job conveying the chip on Sarah’s shoulder and the inherent sweetness that lies under the tough exterior.  When she finally gets to testify and tell her story, it’s the best scene in the film.  The camera sits quietly and lets Ms. Foster own the screen, haltingly describing her rape as her eyes fill with tears and she begins to tremble.  It’s an amazing piece of acting.

The other significant performance in the film is Ms. McGillis’s.  I’ve only ever seen her in Witness (1984), in which she spends most of her time watching and reacting with her big, soulful eyes.  Here, she is a much more active presence, complete with 80s shoulder pads.  She defies the men at the D.A.’s office, insisting on trying the case, and she and Sarah eventually come to understand each other after many interactions laden with class tension.  The two women have great chemistry, and the film plays them off each other well, contrasting Ms. McGillis’s voluptuous hair and physique to Ms. Foster’s tiny frame.

The film’s main problem lies in its inability to articulate its message.  Is it just trying to say, “rape is bad”?  The rape scene itself, shown during a witness’s testimony, is quite horrifying and well done, so that message comes across loud and clear.  The majority of the film, however, is dedicated to condemning the men who cheered it on and instigated it, so that we almost forget that the rapists are already in jail and will only be there for five years.  As I discussed above, the primary emphasis seems to be placed on Sarah’s need to tell her own story, which is a great point to make regarding female subjectivity and the importance of the female experience.  After she gets to testify, however, the film loses a little oomph.  Yes, we want the rape supporters to be convicted, but it feels as if Sarah has already accomplished her goal to some extent, so the primary conflict is complete.  I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I feel about all the intricacies of the script, such as when Kathryn says that standing by and watching a rape is not a crime (really? Are we justifying this?).  The Accused is definitely worth a watch, if only for two powerful performances by strong women.

Random thoughts:

– It’s amazing how big a factor music is in dating a movie.  Just the sound of a synthesizer chord or a lonely saxophone makes me instantly think “eighties.”

– The film suffers a bit from what Thelma & Louise (1991) is often wrongly accused of – basically all the male characters are bad and misogynistic.  There’s one quietly supportive lawyer, but he barely has any lines.

– Would someone really admit to smoking marijuana in open court?  Isn’t that a wee bit risky?


Filed under Film

2 responses to “The Accused (1988)

  1. Jenny

    Diana, if I remember correctly, the story was based on an actual case in Massachusetts (early 80s?), which took a step forward in rape prosecutions by targeting the bystanders, so although it didn’t help where the direct perpetrators were concerned, it did create a legal precedent for prosecuting people who cheered the act on. And I agree, Jodi Foster was amazing!


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