By Christian Toto
“Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” works on so many levels it’s hard to count them all.
The film tackles one of the most emotional subjects in our culture – abortion – with grace and care. The screenplay packs a specific point of view but leaves the soapbox storytelling off the frame. We’re gripped by a narrative that could chase away those with weak stomachs.
Even the film’s PG:13 rating is a victory of sorts given the horrors committed by the titular villain.
Dr. Kermit Gosnell ran a filthy abortion clinic where cats roamed the halls and babies’ feet floated in hidden jars. The specifics are straight out of a torture porn film, but the government agencies designed to oversee the clinic failed time and time again.
Detective James Wood (Dean Cain) wasn’t looking to uncover Dr. Gosnell’s atrocities. A routine drug investigation led him to his Philadelphia clinic.
The film moves quickly from there, offering clues that the clinic may be harboring something sinister. Detective Wood, along with the assistant DA (Sarah Jane Morris), start digging deeper into Dr. Gosnell’s practice.
They’re shocked at what they discover, but it’s far from an open and shut case. They’re cautioned against pushing their suspicions too far, too fast. Abortion remains a third rail issue, and throwing the book at a black abortionist could capsize their efforts.
Director Nick Searcy does double duty as Dr. Gosnell’s attorney, a brawler willing to use every advantage on his client’s behalf. Earl Billings delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the embattled doctor. He’s coy and charismatic, an affable gent just trying to help his patients. It’s the story he’s told himself so often he believes it with all his heart.
His indifference is chilling. Billings’ portrait of evil is wildly original and understated.
Gosnell strains to be impartial, and by most accounts it succeeds. The main players even recite the mantra, “this is not about abortion” for pragmatic purposes. The prize is ending Dr. Gosnell’s house of horrors, not striking a blow for the pro-life movement.
Lead screenwriter Andrew Klavan has seen enough propaganda disguised as entertainment to steer clear of overt sloganeering.
Adding to the apolitical spirit of a film? One sequence name checks former Penn. Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, and not in a flattering way.
A few moments flicker with partisan angst. The filmmakers tweak the media’s disgraceful absence from the story by showcasing the empty rows in the court house reserved for reporters. It’s a darkly comic moment, one given the appropriate close up.
Media malpractice is very much at the heart of the Dr. Gosnell scandal. Conservatives also will cheer a blogger who holds the truth higher than her preferred narratives.
Another scene unabashedly plugs into the pro-life cause. Janine Turner plays a veteran doctor describing what a “good” abortion looks like. She’s calm and dispassionate, offering details of a process many haven’t given much thought about before.
Gosnell may forever change that.
Once again, Director Searcy holds back, letting the dialogue shape the story. The “Justified” star reveals a nimble eye in his second directorial effort, giving a film set primarily in a courtroom a quiet energy.
Some of his visual choices are both obvious and appropriate. Others? He gently ramps up the emotion or finds a gracious way to move our eyes across the screen. He’s been working steadily for more than three decades as a character actor. Either he’s been taking notes from directors along the way or has a natural flair hidden far too long.
We expect crisp performances from pros like Cain and Searcy. It’s the minor characters that power the story in ways you don’t expect. Particularly gripping are the nurses seen in the witness chair. Once more Gosnell could have goosed their testimony for maximum impact. Instead, the actresses fall back on long, awkward silences that add to Dr. Gosnell’s rap sheet.
And lest you think the grisly reveals are over the top, much of the material was taken straight from the court transcripts. The closing credits also share snapshots connected to the case.
You’ll cringe all over again.
Gosnell sprang to life from a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign. The resulting feature had a budget far less than most studio efforts. There’s nothing about the presentation – acting, directing or screenplay – that hints at those fiscal constraints. The movie still bears a made-for-TV patina at times.
A 93 minute film has little room to drag, but even without the time constraintGosnell moves like quicksilver. The personal moments outside the courtroom prove brief, but they efficiently humanize the key players.
They also let us exhale. You’ll need that. The barbarism on display isn’t easily forgotten.
Gosnell’s mere existence speaks to a new brand of movie making. Today’s filmmakers can work around studio gatekeepers, speaking directly to the consumer. No Hollywood player would touch Dr. Gosnell’s reign of terror.
Gosnell producers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney dared. The results should terrify an industry used to telling the stories it wants to tell … and keeping others off the screen.
Editor’s note. This appeared at Newsbusters and is reposted with permission.