On October 12, over 600 theaters around the country launched the movie Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. The film, despite the controversial topic, scored big at the box office. It was among the top ten grossing films during its release week, bringing in over $1.26 million in revenue.
It was also one of the most controversial. Over a quarter of the theaters that featured Gosnell dropped it before the second week. Still others, according to Gosnell‘s marketing director John Sullivan, engaged in some underhanded tactics to suppress viewer turnout. This was all despite the film’s top-ten status and its whopping 98% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
With Gosnell‘s second week coming to a close, viewers may be losing out on their chance to see the movie. So is it worth making a last-minute trip?
Making The Gosnell Movie
The film depicts the story surrounding the investigation and trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the infamous Philadelphia abortion doctor. Gosnell was convicted in 2013 of murdering three newborn infants who had been born alive during attempted abortion procedures, as well as of the involuntary manslaughter of an immigrant woman who died during another botched procedure. Major media outlets initially ignored the story, only giving it nominal coverage until it went viral online.
Producers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney know this story well. They literally wrote the book on the Gosnell case, drawing on their backgrounds as investigative journalists and documentary filmmakers with a decent number of projects under their belts. More recently, McAleer has experimented with stage plays like Ferguson. Ferguson uses “verbatim theater” techniques to act out the literal court records of the grand jury proceedings that resulted in Officer Darren Wilson being acquitted for the murder of 18 year-old Michael Brown.
Writers McAleer, McElhinney, and conservative commentator Andrew Klavan relied on techniques similar to Ferguson. The movie draws heavily from grand jury transcripts, police records, and courtroom transcripts to drive the narrative. The filmmakers lean into this wholeheartedly–the closing credits contain actual pictures and footage used to inspire various scenes. This further drives home the point that the murders actually happened.
But even if it is mostly accurate, is it actually a good movie? In this case, the truth is in fact stranger–and more compelling to watch–than fiction.
A Disturbing, Gripping Story
Gosnell is at its best when it is staying true to the facts. Many of the best scenes come directly from the grand jury testimony and trial transcripts. The actors and extras, at many points, just react in-character to the absurdity going on around them. Their genuine expressions–frequently of confusion, disgust, or horror–translate well to the audience. The audience feels that same shock, because the subject matter really is terrible.
All of the major characters contribute well in their own way. Dean Cain and Alfonzo Rachel play Detectives Woods and Stark. Cain and Rachel do a fantastic and believable job in early scenes of walking through the investigation of Gosnell’s clinic and home. Veteran actor Nick Searcy, who both directed and played the role of the defense attorney, has several equally compelling moments.
Earl Billings plays Gosnell, and has some of his best moments when reenacting truly “off” events caught by investigators. In one scene, Billings calmly plays the piano while police ransack his house, calmly chuckling that he “warned them about the mess” in his basement. (This piano moment, as footage included in the end credits revealed, actually happened during the investigation.)
The best performance by far, however, was from Sarah Jane Morris as Assistant District Attorney Alexis McGuire. She appears early on and stays heavily engaged through to the ending. Morris’s performance navigates the tension between McGuire’s professional life as a district attorney and her role as a mother of five children. As the trial progresses, we watch these two compartments of McGuire’s life begin to bleed into each other and blur. The scenes where McGuire can’t keep her two lives separate are some of the most compelling in the entire movie.
Some Notable Reservations
While the acting in many places is highly compelling, the film is far from perfect. The movie is, in many aspects of its production, still an indie film. The procedural nature of the courtroom drama format does help keep the production focused. However, a handful of moments–one poorly motion-controlled frame edit during an early scene stood out in particular–highlight how some aspects of the performance were clearly less polished.
In addition, a couple of moments relied too heavily on flashy production elements where subtlety could have won the day. One such moment comes when Molly Mullaney, the investigative blogger played by Cyrina Fiallo, tries to address the lack of media members in the gallery. Mullaney steps outside during a recess and publishes a picture showcasing the rows of empty benches. When she posts it, a floating cloud of real tweets appears as the story “takes off” and goes viral. Despite the music swelling on cue to support the moment, it is more visually jarring than anything else.
And, lastly, the film does suffer from many of the same problems that other right-of-center media productions have with putting message before story. Certain added story elements and lines–such as the appearance of a young girl at the very end who Gosnell tried to abort and failed–are effectively fan service for conservative and pro-life viewers. As film critic Steven D. Greydanus put it, Gosnell “avoids actual preaching, [but] it’s still addressed to the choir.” Until right-of-center media groups break away from this habit of writing in explicit morality messages at the cost of narrative, their stories will continue to suffer with wider audiences.
A Film Worth Seeing
These critiques aside, Gosnell is still a powerful, emotional story faithfully retelling a horrific recent event. The facts of the story by themselves are tragic enough, and their lack of coverage at the time was itself borderline criminal. If you have yet to take the plunge, Gosnell may well be worth the trip to the theater.