by John Ellis
***This review contains spoilers***
“How do we know the skulls are empty?”
That gruesome question is asked by Assistant District Attorney Alexis McGuire, played by Sarah Jane Morris, as she stares at a row of dead babies. Whether or not the “skulls are empty” is a vital piece of evidence she needs to help build her case against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, an abortion doctor accused of murder, among a litany of other crimes. That question also represents the contrast between humanity (life) and evil (death) portrayed in Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.
Directed by Nick Searcy, best known for starring in FX’s Justified, the movie tells a true story that is well-known by many. Armed with a tightly written screenplay that stays on point and an excellent cast, Searcy succeeds in bringing the events of Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s trial into sharp narrative relief in the viewer’s mind. A story told honestly on the screen is far more effective than when told through the pages of newspapers or in CNN segments.
Gosnell begins with Detective James “Woody” Wood, played by Dean Cain, and Detective Stark, played by Alfonzo Rachel II, setting up and executing a drug bust. In the confusion brought about by law enforcement agencies jockeying for jurisdiction, the suspect blurts out the name, “Dr. Gosnell.”
That sets an unexpected chain of events in motion.
On the night of February 18, 2010, local Philadelphia police officers, including Woody and Stark, in conjunction with the DEA and the FBI raid Dr. Gosnell’s abortion clinic. They were looking for two things: evidence in an ongoing interstate drug case and evidence regarding the death of a woman who was administered drugs by someone other than a licensed doctor. What they found was far more horrifying than they had anticipated.
Making their way down dimly lit, cluttered hallways and into dingy rooms, the officers corral witnesses and collect evidence. As the narrative perspective transitions to the one seen through the lens of Detective Woody’s hand-held video camera, the movie’s tone effectively rolls into the edges of a horror film, only to be rolled back to the appropriate true-story tone when Detective Woody incredulously asks, “What is that smell!?”
Finally coming to a stop in front of a refrigerator, the searching detective opens the fridge door. The look of disgust on his face says far more than any words can. Detective James Wood had stumbled upon the remains of some of the victims of America’s biggest serial killer.
Grittier than most Christian movies, Gosnell is not a Christian movie. At least, not in the traditional sense of the adjective. In fact, I’m almost 100% confident that the filmmakers would bristle at the notion that Gosnell is a Christian movie. However, a movie that so clearly defends life at the expense of the sexual revolution’s favorite sacred cow of abortion is Christian in one of the most important senses of the adjective. Gosnell promotes a worldview that is rooted in God’s desire to protect life, especially the life of the most vulnerable.
On the flip side, because Gosnell is not a Christian movie the way most define it, the movie steers clear of the saccharine traps and moralistic tropes of the Christian film industry that tend to produce bad art. Gosnell is an example of how good storytelling using the medium of film can entertain, intellectually challenge, and stir the emotions all at the same time.
A story like Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s that is already emotionally charged and contains high stakes is a trap for storytellers. It can feel good to chew the scenes, to manipulate the audience’s emotions, and to milk the high stakes for all their worth. However, doing so robs stories of resonance and thoughtfulness. Starting with the screenplay from Andrew Klavan, Phelim McAleer, and Ann McElhinney, Gosnell avoids that trap.
Searcy and his cast and crew understood that they didn’t need to do the emotional heavy lifting; they allowed the story to do that for them. Because of that, the audience is allowed an unobscured view of the central tension between humanity and evil.
One of the fascinating and terrifying things revealed in Gosnell is how close humanity and evil exist. There are moments of genuine pathos in Dr. Kermit Gosnell, and the women working for him are hardworking individuals who are doing their best in bad situations. On the other side, we feel the ideological tension Assistant District Attorney McGuire struggles with. She’s not a crusader; like the workers in Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, she’s simply trying to do her job. Her job just happens to be pursuing justice for the state. While the notes of humanity and evil play throughout Gosnell, there are times when Searcy masterfully directs the two into notes of tight harmony that ask the viewers to contemplate how our lives frequently exist in the margins between good and evil. None of us are innocent. As one ancient writer put it, “All have sinned.”
At other times, though, using imagery (fleas in the dirty basement of a comfortable, upper-middle class home, a smile, and turtles, among others), Searcy inserts intense moments that cause the viewer to remember that ultimately humanity (life) and evil (death) are enemies. A reminder that the consequences of evil always come due. Goodness comes calling, and, in that moment, living in the margins is the same as living in evil. Seek good, resist evil, and choose life.
Because of the storytelling deftness of Nick Searcy, as well as the screenwriters, cast, and entire production team, Gosnell never preaches, yet the message is clear: evil exists, sometimes in unsuspecting ways, sometimes in culturally uncomfortable ways, but it’s important for us to engage and to fight back with humanity and charity and courage.
Artistically, Gosnell excels, in large part, because of the excellent cast. Dean Cain, Alfonzo Rachel II, Cyrina Fiallo (in the role of blogger Mollie Mullaney), Nick Searcy (playing defense attorney Mike Cohen), and the rest of the supporting cast do a great job – Fiallo and Searcy deserve extra mention, but space doesn’t permit. However, and appropriately, it’s the two leads who spoke the quietest yet the most profoundly from the screen, which is fitting since the two are the embodiments of the conflict between humanity and evil.
This won’t happen because of the politicization of abortion, the Gosnell case, and this movie, but Sarah Jane Morris deserves an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Assistant District Attorney Alexis McGuire. Three perspectives intertwined, separate at points, informing each other at other points, and ultimately woven together into an inseparable whole, Morris delivers a layered performance on which the whole movie rests. The meeting of all three perspectives finally happens at McGuire’s daughter’s piano recital. Interrupted and ushered out by Detective Wood who has important news to deliver, McGuire turns and returns to the piano recital. As she starts to walk away, Detective Wood protests, “This is what we wanted.”
As she sits, framed by smiling parents, the camera’s focus is on McGuire’ face as those three perspectives converge and wage war in her muted expression and vivid eyes. The range of victory, anger, fear, and sorrow play out, as she sits silently, serenaded by her daughter’s recital piece. A few scenes later, that existential war concludes as she questions Betty, the clinic worker who snapped the photo of Baby Boy A. In that moment, standing in the courtroom, the resolve of McGuire overcomes all else as she brings the questioning home. She chooses humanity over evil. She seeks good, resists evil, and chooses life.
Sarah Jane Morris’ ability to weave together the three nuanced strands into a layered portrayal of a real individual is a display of immense acting prowess. The camera never lies, and most actors end up sacrificing layers for honesty. That’s a sacrifice that Morris didn’t make.
Like the other main characters, Dr. Gosnell is not a fictional character. The writers, Klavan, McAleer, and McElhinney, didn’t construct him from their macabre imaginations. That being said, the reality of the person of Dr. Gosnell is a reality of the macabre. Because of that, he’s the type of character that tempts lesser actors into histrionic characterizations. Thinking they’re chewing artistic meat, lesser actors strut on the stage, sawing the air with their hands in a torrent and tempest of whirlwind passion, to paraphrase the Danish prince Hamlet, while in reality they are giving evidence that their gifts are self-serving.
Throughout the movie, Earl Billings, who plays Dr. Gosnell, displays admirable restraint while allowing the viewers to see shadows of the monster underneath the grandfatherly façade. In the courtroom scene mentioned above, the monster threatens to break through, but the layered control of Billings only allows that monster a brief exposure, enough to leave no doubt for the audience who and what they’re witnessing, but not so much as to derail the movie and his characterization of Dr. Kermit Gosnell into cartoonish villainy.
Without Billings’ prodigious acting talent brought to bear on the important yet tricky role of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the movie could have easily devolved into a stereotypical serial killer movie devoid of any subtext. Unfortunately, like Sarah Jane Morris, the award season will most likely move forward without the presence of the deserving Earl Billings. Politics and ideology trump art in Hollywood, after all.
And make no mistake, as subtly and expertly put together as Gosnell is, as universal as its central story, the movie is a political one. Even as the characters in the movie insist to each other that abortion isn’t on trial, everyone knows that it is. This is seen most clearly in the scene that reveals the film’s emotional heart and sympathies.
When asked why she snapped the photo of Baby Boy A, Betty matter-of-factly says from the witness stand, “He was so big. He looked like he could’ve been somebody’s little brother. I just thought that there should be a picture of him, to show that he was here for a little while.”
Soli Deo Gloria
Click here to find a local theater near you screening Gosnell.
(Note: since my primary audience is to conservative evangelicals, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Gosnell contains PG-13 language. Everyone must make their own decision in full faith before God, but, for what it’s worth, I do not believe that the rating and language should prevent you from watching it. I’m planning on having my almost-thirteen-year-old daughter watch it.)