Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer raised a whopping $2.3 million crowd-funded budget through Indiegogo, with the writers doing a lot of appearances on talk radio, and quite possibly finding a demand in the marketplace that had been underserved. Because for all the Christian and conservative movies that do exist within their own subgenre, rare is the one that deals with abortion, even as it's arguably the religious right's number-one political priority. It's a tough subject in a field where every filmmaker wants to be family friendly, yet the very issue, when framed conservatively, absolutely isn't. Most mainstream Hollywood movies, even the R-rated horror kind, balk at killing young children; if you believe that's what abortion is, you can't very well be more violent than your ideological opponents about it. And the movie's been finished for three years, but a lawsuit from one of the actual judges in the Gosnell case held it up; it's also possible the recent appearance of director/costar Nick Searcy in both of last year's big Oscar winners The Shape of Water and Three Billboards may have given it the extra clout it needed to get out there. Searcy, who has a bit of a WWE-style persona on social media, has taken to labeling his Twitter "Nick Searcy, INTERNATIONAL FILM & TELEVISION STAR" since then.
Still, despite a heavy push from conservative personalities like Michelle Malkin, a Saturday night at the movies to see an abortion movie isn't necessarily anyone's idea of a good time, regardless of affiliation. Searcy has publicly promised it's not graphic (there is some blood, and some brief shots of fetal feet and tops of heads, though the rest is implied), but it's still a downer issue. Will paying audiences show up?
As it turns out, Gosnell is about as engrossing as your average episode of Law & Order, from which it borrows its "police procedural first, court case second" structure. Yes, you can probably find some permutation of that series playing on your TV right now, but you won't find one with the involvement of so many names from the right-mediasphere. Searcy himself has substitute-hosted for Rush Limbaugh, supporting actor Alonzo "Zo" Rachel makes videos for Pajamas Media, screenwriter Andrew Klavan is a regular at PragerU, and producing/writing couple Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney are columnists for Townhall.com and makers of anti-environmentalism documentaries like Not Evil Just Wrong and FrackNation.
Rogue abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell (Earl Billings) is the sort of character everyone, regardless of ideology, ought to root against: he ran an atrociously unsanitary clinic which led to at least one death from negligence, he barely trained unqualified assistants to administer anesthesia, and his concept of abortion, more often than not, was later than the law allowed and involved inducing labor, then killing the baby after birth. Whether this makes him a "serial killer," as the title suggests, rather than the real-life version of The Simpsons' terminally inept Dr. Nick, may be a matter of semantics, but the movie didn't invent that term for him--it was used in the media at the time.
The movie puts forward the notion that Gosnell's crimes went unchecked for so long because pro-choicers in positions of power didn't want to learn anything that might make abortion look bad, which may have been the case. It also pushes further: as Gosnell's attorney, Searcy at one point describes in detail everything that happens during a "normal" abortion, to make the case that what his client did wasn't significantly morally worse. His pitch is at the audience as much as the movie's jury, but in a reverse-psychology kind of way. "This is what liberals believe," he might as well be saying, "and on the off-chance anyone in the audience is a liberal, this is how horrific you sound to us."
Searcy frequently plays buffoonish conservative authority figures; he's clearly having a blast flipping the script to play a venal leftist trial lawyer. And he's generally chosen better actors than this type of movie usually gets. Dean Cain, as the liberal Catholic cop whose beliefs are tested, is good enough that you'll wonder why he seems to have been regularly confined to the faith-based cornfield, and Billings' Gosnell is magnetic--a sociopathic and oblivious jolly fat man who genuinely can't understand how his practices aren't within the spirit (if not the letter) of the law. I'm not sure what to make of Cyrina Fiallo's blogger character "Molly Mullaney"--she appears to be a whitewash of Michelle Malkin, used as a red herring, with tattoos and dyed hair signifying "radical feminist" to the faith-based crowd so as to make her actual helpful nature a surprise twist of sorts.
If only Searcy had the confidence as a technical director that he does in his acting ability and ideology. It's been a long time since he's directed (1997's Paradise Falls isn't even on imdb [CORRECTION: it is, under the alternate title of Carolina Low] but I've seen it, and it's pretty good: a historical drama set in western North Carolina, whence he hails), and at times we get a glimpse of compositions beyond the obvious--a mom rubbing her baby's foot as contrasted to a severed foot found in Gosnell's clinic, or that same mom breaking down emotionally during another child's concert, having just seen a photo of a dead baby. In each case you can tell what Searcy's going for, yet it feels half-hearted and rushed, like he's afraid to get too arty and breathe between narrative plot points. When he shoots some of the flashbacks in lower light with grainier footage, I was left wondering what a take-no-prisoners anti-abortion artist like Mel Gibson might have done to go full horror.
Any production design budget looks to have been spent on Gosnell's offices, at the metaphorical intersection of Crazy Cat Person Street and Hoarder Way, augmented with actual rare tortoises (a surprising detail to spend so much time getting right, but why not); his basement, by contrast, makes do with a swarm of CGI fleas. For the rest of the movie, set decoration is barely existent; the stock footage helicopter shots of skylines look far better than any of the real shots, and many exteriors are in focus so shallow as to presumably conceal the actual location. Such things don't matter if the story's compelling, but given a choice between this and a free Law and Order episode that looks a lot better, the only reason to see Gosnell is if this particular crime is of interest to you.
So again, the question is will this be a good or compelling time at the movies for anybody, and the answer is, for the specific target audience, probably. The arc of characters who go on and on about being pro-choice gradually becoming more and more horrified at an evil abortionist is somewhat redemptive in the conservative Christian sense, and good triumphs over evil, all while evil gets the more deliciously hammy performances. If you're not an avid right-wing media consumer, however, there's very little here to make this average effort extra-special.
I have been a writer, editor, and occasional newsman since 1999, appearing in such publications as the LA Weekly, OC Weekly, New Times, L.A. Times, Deadline, Nerdist, an...