Five minutes. That’s how long the rape scene in The Accused is, and 90 percent of that sequence is focused not on the victim but on the perpetrators — the three men gang-raping Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) and the assortment of other men cheering them on in the bar. It’s not even a particularly skillful sequence — director Jonathan Kaplan is better suited to the television procedurals he now directs — but the impact of the scene is enough to suffocate the pit in your stomach.
1988’s The Accused — which was one of the first Hollywood films to focus on rape — demonstrated that, when it comes to sexual violence, a little goes a long way. But for the red-blooded, violent-hungry, bloodthirsty cinephiles among us, especially those that have been conditioned by the two decades of increasingly violent films that followed — it also demonstrated something strangely paradoxical: The courtroom comeuppance was incredibly unsatisfying. What it was missing was more bloodshed.
Granted, The Accused was based tenuously on the real-life rape of Cheryl Araujo in New Bedford, Massachusetts back in 1983, a case that didn’t, unfortunately, establish a precedent for criminalizing the behavior of whooping onlookers as the film suggests, but did provide the template for the “blaming the victim” strategy that has since been employed by many a skeevy defense attorney. Putting aside the based-on-real-events aspect, however, our cinematic culture’s thirst for revenge — spearheaded, at least in part, by Quentin Tarantino and Chan-wook Park’s oeuvres, as well as many of Jodie Foster’s subsequent films — has created in us a desire in more for more than the criminal solicitation charges levied against the onlookers who cheered as Sarah Tobias was raped, verisimilitude be damned. We want to see them suffer. We want bullets in heads. We want meat grinders. Rusty-scissored tongue removal. And chemical castrations. And blood. Gobs.
It’s not an easy contradiction to make sense of, but there it is: We like violence in film. We just don’t like sexual violence. We don’t like the prolonged, agonizing filmic torture. Unless the people being tortured deserve it. Hell, Jack Bauer proved that. When it’s a woman being beaten, tortured, and raped (or even having a boob sliced off, Eli), it seems inexcusable. Unjustified. Reprehensible. But when a victim rises up, ties her rapist to a bed, dildo-fucks him in the anus, and tattoos his chest (The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo), it feels wholly satisfying. And how!
It’s a double-standard, and poor sadistic nihilistic fucks are getting the short end of that stick. We criticize torture porn, but we cry foul when a horror movie settles for a soft-core PG-13 rating. We celebrate the spontaneous explosion of heads, but we abhor teeth-pulling or the forced ingestion of pureed intestines.
Given all factors, I’m forced to come to one conclusion: It’s not the violence that the majority of Americans abhors. We love violence. Look at True Romance, Zombieland, Apocalypse Now, Scarface or Pulp Fiction. The fundamental difference between those films and a movie like Saw or Captivity is the motivation behind the violence. If violence is motivated by justice, revenge, or self-defense, we say bring it on. Puncture that eardrum. Slice off that knee-cap. Blow that motherfuckers brains out. And make it splat. But if that violence is motivated by sadism, if it’s driven by sexual prurience, or if its intent is to sicken or disgust us, then please don’t. We may like violence, but we’re not depraved.
Our relationship with onscreen violence is as simple as that. It’s not the visceral nature of it. It’s not the blood. It’s not aestheticized violence. The reality is: We don’t like torture. But we love punishment. And in five minutes at the end of the film, The Accused gave us all the reason we needed to want to see those sons of bitches suffer. It’s just too bad all they got was a Class B felony and probably a six-month suspended sentence. Because I bet Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis could’ve fucked up some assholes real good.