Nick Searcy’s “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” doesn’t so much play like a movie as it does an oversized episode of “Law & Order.” The events have been ripped from horrifying headlines. The first half is all about catching a killer. The second half is about prosecuting him. And when its done, you can’t help but feel you didn’t get the whole story.
Unlike “Law & Order,” Searcy’s film isn’t just inspired by reality. “Gosnell” tells the story of Kermit Gosnell (Earl Billings, “Miss Guided”), a doctor who ran a Pennsylvania abortion clinic which, for many years, operated in unsafe, unclean and unprofessional conditions. His staff was untrained. His methods were monstrous. Gosnell was directly responsible for the death of at least one patient, and gave illegal, late-term “abortions” by killing living infants outside of the womb.
It’s hard to calculate the atrocities Gosnell committed, and the tale of his apprehension and trial is undeniably fascinating. What begins as a routine investigation into illegal prescriptions leads to a raid of Gosnell’s clinic, where horrified officers find bags of fetal remains strewn about the building, in hallways and inside refrigerators. The refrigerator is full of severed baby feet. Gosnell himself arrives, doesn’t see anything terribly wrong, and proceeds to feed his rare turtles in the lobby.
As the investigation mounts, Det. James Wood (Dean Cain) and Assistant District Attorney Lexy McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris, “The Night Shift”) uncover a disturbing series of events. Every single one of Gosnell’s crimes is ghoulish and disturbing, and Searcy presents them matter-of-factly, because they speak for themselves.
Unfortunately, exposition doesn’t speak for itself. “Gosnell” is a film where an A.D.A. literally knows less about abortion law than anyone who watches the news, and has to look up whether late-term abortions are legal or not.
When police search the abortion clinic and find a house of ghoulish horrors, they literally can’t tell if it’s normal operating procedure, because they’ve never been in an abortion clinic before. They just assumed this could be what it’s like.
The events in Searcy’s film demand to be taken seriously. The way he portrays them, sometimes, cannot. During a queasy sequence in which Wood and McGuire visit a medical technician — who says they cannot determine if Gosnell’s victims were born alive or dead without cutting into their skulls — the technician hands the scalpel to Wood and McGuire, implying that they will be the ones performing the task. If that’s standard autopsy procedure, then our judicial system has a hell of a lot of problems.
Abortion is a difficult and controversial topic, and although Searcy’s film purports to be impartial, its attitude turns one-sided as the trial commences. Early on, the film clarifies the obvious difference between actual abortion and Gosnell’s murders, but that’s just brief exposition. The opposing arguments get to have whole scene-stealing set pieces to themselves.
Case in point: McGuire brings another abortion doctor to the witness stand, in order to give the jury context for how these procedures should be performed, and under what legal, safe conditions.
It’s a perfectly reasonable scene until Gosnell’s defense attorney, played by Searcy himself, cross-examines the witness and equates Gosnell’s crimes to legal abortions in every way possible. McGuire doesn’t redirect; the witness doesn’t provide a counterpoint. The argument is allowed to simply stand, unchallenged, for the jury and audience to stew on.
Lopsided viewpoints skew Searcy’s whole film. Despite characters who claim that “this case wasn’t about abortion,” the movie clearly is. It indicts a system that was so concerned with preserving abortion rights that it let a monster run amok, unsupervised and unpunished for many years.
That problem demands to be addressed, no doubt about it, but the film’s portrayal of the system is exclusively negative, and it conspicuously excludes any portrayal of women who receive abortions without being victimized or regretting the decision. At no point does the film visit abortion clinics that aren’t crime scenes out of the movie “Se7en.” Gosnell’s practice is, in the film’s perspective, functionally if not literally the face of abortion.
For a while, Searcy’s portrayal of the events is cinematically sound, engaging and well-acted. Billings in particular gives a terrifying performance as a man whose doddering, amiable demeanor provides the perfect cover for his demonic actions. He feeds his turtles as he neglects his clients. He cheerfully plays the piano while the police search his house for evidence of murder. These are undeniably disturbing moments in an undeniably disturbing story. (That said, the closeup of Gosnell scrambling eggs is embarrassingly on the nose.)
Searcy films “Gosnell” effectively, even creepily, and for a while it seems that the film’s politics won’t entirely get in the way of an intriguing story. Searcy even shows some restraint during the trial, when a gruesome photograph is presented in evidence, and the audience sees only the jurors’ repulsed faces. Searcy doesn’t need to show the image to convey its impact. Showing the image would be crass and propagandistic. Thank goodness “Gosnell” doesn’t resort to that kind of cheap exploitation!
SPOILER ALERT: “Gosnell” ends with a title card, inviting the audience to see that photo right now, at the film’s promotional website. All that good will, shattered in an instant.
A film that could have been taken seriously as a drama — a politically one-sided but nonetheless competent drama — devolves into ghoulish sideshow grotesquery.