“How did Gosnell get away with it for so long?” I asked when writing about the case of Kermit Gosnell for the first time, almost eight years ago. I took the answer from the report by the Philadelphia grand jury that indicted the late-term abortionist on eight counts of murder and over 200 other charges: “It is by design.” A later jury convicted Gosnell on most of the homicide charges and almost all of the other counts in the indictment, for which Gosnell now serves a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
However, in a certain sense, Gosnell is still getting away with it, or at least has escaped the notice of major media — which had to be shamed into covering the trial and story at all. Independent filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McIlhenny have stepped in to fill the gap, first with a book titled Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer and now a film with the slightly different name above. The film opens on Friday in over 750 theaters, which might produce the most comprehensive media treatment the Gosnell horrors will ever get.
For full disclosure in this film review, let me remind readers of a few personal connections that I have to it. We have written prolifically about Kermit Gosnell and the case; this will be the 160th article with a mention of him in it at Hot Air. Phelim and Ann are good friends of mine, and they have shared with me on numerous occasions, both publicly in interviews and privately (off the record), about the many struggles they had in bringing this film to the screen. My views on abortion are no secret, nor is it any secret how much I criticized the national media for ignoring Gosnell in order to prevent people from re-evaluating abortion. Clearly, I want to see this film succeed, and you should know that before reading my evaluation of it.
With that said …
Gosnell has a number of things going for it right off the bat, and the film takes advantage of them all. The story is already horrific, dramatic, suspenseful, and provocative. Rather than fall into the bad practice of applying “style” or intrusive camera techniques, director Nick Searcy plays it straight and lets the story tell itself more organically. The cast is solid and delivers realistic portrayals without chewing scenery and distracting from the story. Searcy himself probably has the most fun, playing the role of defense attorney in courtroom scenes, but that works because the others are playing their roles without overdoing it, especially Sarah Jane Morris as Lexy McGuire as the assistant DA whose pro-choice views get a serious challenge in her work on this case. AlonZo “Zo” Rachel, a longtime favorite in the blogosphere and on social media, does a very good job in the supporting role of Detective Stark, the partner to Dean Cain’s lead role of Detective James Wood, which Cain pulls off well.
However, the best performances in the film come out of the clinic itself. The clinic employees who testify in the courtroom scenes don’t get a lot of screen time but they are tremendously effective as the trial builds to its climax. Dominique Deon as Betty Goodwin stands out in a critical role, setting up the jury’s decision and the conclusion of the trial. Janine Turner (Northern Exposure) has an intriguing cameo as a abortion-clinic medical director called as a trial witness by the prosecution to differentiate Gosnell’s actions from other abortion clinics, a small part of the film’s repeated message that the prosecution wasn’t focused on fighting abortion — just murder.
Without a doubt, though, Earl Billings owns Gosnell. The veteran character actor does a masterful job of capturing the essence of Kermit Gosnell and his insanely good humor that was on display even after his conviction. Billings delivers the performance of his life after decades of playing mostly small roles on film and television. (He’s probably most recognized from his commercials for Aflac.) From the moment Gosnell became a public figure, his oddities came immediately to the fore; he has often seemed as though the charges and then his sentence were a light-hearted matter, almost to the point of being disconnected from reality. The film repeats Gosnell’s bizarre piano playing during the police search of his home, for instance, and his weird cheeriness during the trial. Billings nails Gosnell’s almost courtly weirdness and insouciance. It may not have the malevolence of Anthony Hopkins’ ghoulish Hannibal Lecter, but Billings’ Gosnell is every bit as creepy — and even more so because it’s real life.
Thanks to the performances and its straightforward approach, Gosnell works as an effective procedural, as well as a criticism of media bias and the institutional defense of abortion. The trial dialogue comes straight out of the court records, part of the “verbatim” genre that Phelim and Ann have pioneered on stage as well. The rest of the film is structured conventionally in order to allow the story itself to be the star of the film. In that, Gosnell succeeds, even if Billings manages to give it a run for its money.
On the Hot Air scale, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer gets a 5:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
Gosnell is rated PG-13. Despite the ghastly nature of the crimes involved, there is very little of a graphic nature shown on screen that would be too much for sensitive viewers. This isn’t a film for small children, mainly because a procedural like this won’t hold their interest, but teenagers will easily handle the imagery.
Thanks to the nature of independent film, the best chance to see this movie in the theater is to watch it on its opening weekend. The film’s website has listings for theater showings, so be sure to start making plans now to catch it on the big screen.