Saturday, December 29, 2012

Menahem Golan's Interesting Misfire: "Silent Victim"

Growing up in the 1980s, I admit that I enjoyed all of the movies that Israeli-born producer/director Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus made at the Cannon Group, Inc.  I enjoyed Golan's own "The Delta Force" (1986) as well as the "American Ninja" movies that he produced, among other films.  When Golan left Cannon in the late 1980s, after it had gone through financial challenges, he regrouped with another production company called 21st Century Film Corporation, with the goal of producing ambitious, high-quality films.  It was during his time with 21st Century that Golan directed one of his most ambitious and unlikely films, the abortion drama "Silent Victim" (1993).  I first heard about the film in a short article in "Variety" announcing it was going into production.  I remember being intrigued that Golan was tackling this subject matter.  "Silent Victim" was filmed in the Fall of 1991 on location in Newnan, Georgia.  According to an article discussing the making of the film in the October 18, 1991 issue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, it had a budget of $4 million and its original shooting title was called "Hot House."  Golan admitted in the interview that no distributor had been lined up for the movie, but that "he would offer it to all the major studios.  If there aren't any takers, he'll offer it to a cable network, such as HBO or Showtime, or a home video distributor."  The usually flamboyant Golan was quite humble in discussing his purpose in making "Silent Victim," telling the Journal Constitution that "I'm not doing this for the sake of politics...The main thrust of the story is when it happens, everybody comes to take advantage of the situation.  I'm walking a razor's edge.  I hope the movie will be good enough that people will learn something and enjoy it."  As it happened, "Silent Victim" never found a theatrical distributor and premiered on cable.  It's been virtually forgotten and is now only available on Netflix streaming or Amazon prime.  It's a shame, because it's a very intriguing and entertaining movie for all the right and all the wrong reasons.

In "Silent Victim," former "LA Law" regular Michele Greene stars as Bonnie Jackson, a meek young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage with her overbearing and abusive husband Jed Jackson (Kyle Secor).  Jed believes that the one thing that would save their marriage is a child, so he relentlessly puts pressure on Bonnie to take all the proper medication and precautions in the hope that they can conceive a child.  When Jed beats Bonnie after a particularly brutal argument, she takes pills and attempts suicide.  When Jed finds her, he rushes Bonnie to the hospital, where her life is saved, but it is discovered that she had been pregnant and her suicide attempt caused a miscarriage.  An enraged Jed inspires local ambitious District Attorney Carter Evans (Alex Hyde-White) to bring charges against Bonnie for criminal attempt to commit suicide, interference with husband's property rights, failure to obtain spousal notification, and unlicensed practice of medicine to produce criminal abortion.  Bonnie's best friend from college Lauren McKinley (Ely Pouget), a high-powered Manhattan attorney, returns to Newnan to defend Bonnie in court.  The resultant publicity surrounding the case puts Bonnie square in the middle of the abortion debate, with protestors representing both the pro-choice and pro-life perspectives descending upon Newnan.  In the course of the trial, it is revealed that the man who fathered Bonnie's baby was not Jed, but Bonnie's friend, African American pharmacist C. Ray Thompson (Ralph Wilcox).  Bonnie had been having an affair with C. Ray because of the unhappiness of her marriage with Jed.  The jury acquits of her all the charges except unlicensed practice of medicine to produce a criminal abortion.  The Judge, disgusted at the circus atmosphere surrounding the trial, suspends Bonnie's sentence and fines her $1,000.  He urges Bonnie and Jed to try and rebuild their lives.  Outside the court, Bonnie tells Jed she needs time to decide what future lays ahead for her and walks away from him.

With that storyline, there is no way that "Silent Victim" would ever be called boring.  Golan keeps up the energy and pace of the movie so that it remains completely engaging and compelling from the opening scene.  He also makes excellent use of real locations in Newnan, Georgia that allows the town to become a vivid supporting character in the movie.  Newnan has a texture and character to it that allows it to stand out as an interesting movie location.  Golan gets technically good performances from his entire cast, but there's a certain lack of restraint in both his direction and in some of the acting that prevents "Silent Victim" from becoming the hard-hitting, serious drama it aspires to be.  Golan adds some strange touches to the movie that are at times tasteless or unintentionally funny.  During the scene when Bonnie is in the Emergency Room being treated for her suicide attempt, Golan cuts to a quick shot of blood and afterbirth coming out from between her legs, to demonstrate her miscarriage.  When Jed moves out of the house and into a motel, Golan shows him getting drunk watching a women's prison movie with lesbian nude sex scenes.  When Bonnie is confronted by a bunch of reporters, she covers her ears and sings aloud "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" to drown them out.  Outside of the courthouse, where a carnival/circus has been set up to entertain spectators, there's a truly bizarre scene with two hand puppets playing a married couple.  The male hand-puppet, upon learning that the female hand-puppet wants an abortion, beats the female hand-puppet to death while the children in the audience applaud approvingly.  When the verdict is being read aloud by the jury foreman, the potential drama and tension of the scene is undercut by the visual incongruity of having a middle-aged man wearing a pony tail (1960s-era actor Bart Patton, star of 1963's "Dementia 13" and a former Francis Ford Coppola associate) play the foreman.  When the Judge fines Bonnie $1,000, an overly eager Jed jumps to his feet, pulls out his checkbook, and offers to pay the amount.  At the end of the film, when Bonnie encounters C. Ray outside the courthouse, two ridiculous looking clowns (who we saw earlier enacting a scene where the "pregnant" clown has its protruding stomach caved in with the wooden mallet wielded by the other clown) are prominently standing in the background, undermining what is meant to be a very serious, poignant moment.  But the strange touches in Golan's direction isn't the only thing that's over the top here.  Kyle Secor embarrassingly overacts as the unsympathetic, stupid Jed.  His performance has such a "bull in the China Shop" quality to it that Jed comes across as borderline psychotic at times.  I'm not convinced that Golan and the screenwriters intended to make Jed unsympathetic since they had the character have a change of heart in the latter half of the movie where he expresses regret at bringing charges against Bonnie.  Jed also seems sincere at the end of the movie when he appears to want to make amends with his wife, but because Secor didn't invest subtler qualities of genuine caring and vulnerability into the character earlier in the story, you're always nervous that Jed is on the verge of another violent outburst against Bonnie.

Along the same lines, Michele Greene also elicits little sympathy as Bonnie.  There's always been a quality about Greene, even as far back as "LA Law" that was rarely warm or likeable.  Greene tends to be cast in victim roles, which is strange, because I've always sensed a cold, disconnected chilliness from her as an actress.  There's rarely an accessible humanity or vulnerability emanating from her that makes her characters someone that people can relate to.  I've chatted with two female friends about Michele Greene after seeing "Silent Victim" recently.  At the mere mention of Greene's name, both friends said to me, "I've never liked her as an actress...what is it about her?"  So at least I know I'm not alone in feeling this way.  I think Greene is miscast as Bonnie, but to be fair to her, the script stacks the deck against Bonnie by portraying her as someone who is weak, selfish and dishonest with the people in her life.  She doesn't stand up against Jed (Bonnie admits to Lauren she still loves Jed even after all his abuse and bullying), uses C. Ray as a source of comfort from her unhappy marriage, doesn't come clean with either men as to the identity of the father of her child until she is forced to, and decides to commit suicide instead of taking a proactive stand for herself against the bullying and abusive Jed once and for all.  Bonnie even turns on her friend Lauren at the end of the film, accusing Lauren of exploiting Bonnie's case for professional and political gain because Lauren chose not to work out a plea bargain with D.A. Carter Evans.  The ungrateful Bonnie forgets how Lauren, despite her ulterior motives, was the only person who remained on her side throughout her ordeal and worked hard at getting her acquitted.  Bonnie is an extremely flawed character, who would have been even more compelling in the hands of a more skillful actress who could have brought empathy to her without compromising or homogenizing the character one bit.  A young Julianne Moore, before she hit stardom, might have been more ideal as Bonnie.

Much more compelling and nuanced are Alex Hyde-White and Ely Pouget as, respectively, D.A. Carter Evans and Bonnie's attorney and friend, Lauren McKinley.  Hyde-White and Pouget do a fine job at giving their roles nicely balanced shades of grey.  At the outset of the movie, Carter Evans appears like he will be the "villain" of the piece, since he decides to prosecute Bonnie in order to build a political platform to run for Governor of Georgia.  But, later in the film, you see he has second-thoughts and has regrets pursuing the case as he realizes it has gone too far.  And Pouget does a good job balancing her character's genuine concern for her best friend with her own opportunism at building a career for herself as an attorney for feminist issues.  Because their characters have a romantic history together, this allows Golan to take advantage of an easy on-screen chemistry Hyde-White and Pouget have together in the movie.  I was actually more interested in finding out what would happen with Carter and Lauren's relationship, as a result of the controversy surrounding the trial, than I was with Jed and Bonnie.  What I liked the most about Hyde-White and Pouget's performances is that they rose above one-dimensional stereotypes you see in movies about Southerners.  Carter Evans and Lauren McKinley come across as complex and interesting characters, and you don't sense any condescension in Hyde-White or Pouget's performances towards their characters the way you do with Secor and Greene regarding their roles.  Hyde-White and Pouget seem completely committed to understanding their roles, bringing intelligence and depth to them.  On the other hand, Secor and Greene just struck me as condescendingly looking down on both Jed and Bonnie, making no effort to try and walk in their shoes, because they each came across as selfish and foolish.

Even though there are genuine flaws to "Silent Victim," by no means do I suggest that the movie is not worth watching.  Actually, it's the flaws, along with its genuinely good qualities, that make "Silent Victim" such an interesting movie so that it rises above being a Lifetime TV movie.  You never know from scene-to-scene if you're going to watch something that is going to be good or campy.  On the plus side, Golan populates his supporting cast with excellent regionally-based actors who bring a lot of authenticity to their roles--more authenticity than Greene or Secor ever bring to their roles.  Notable are Dan Biggers as the sensible Judge presiding over the case, Tommy Cresswell as one of the prosecuting attorneys who is initially sympathetic to Bonnie's situation until he is convinced of the political advantage of putting her on trial, and Bill Ewin and Janell McLeod as the conscientious motel owners who provide a key piece of evidence at the end of the trial.  All of these actors have built accomplished careers playing supporting roles in films and TV shows shot in either Tennessee or Georgia.  They, like Hyde-White and Pouget, bring depth and humanity to their roles to ensure that they don't succumb to any one-dimensional Southern stereotypes.  1980s TV actress Leann Hunley also does good work as an ambitious TV reporter covering the case.  Despite the flaws in "Silent Victim," I think Golan effectively underscored the adverse polarization of this country concerning the subject of abortion.  (For the record, I am not taking one side or another on the issue, as this blog remains apolitical.)  Even though the movie could ultimately be characterized as pro-choice in theme, I don't think Golan completely sides with pro-choice activists with the way he portrays them in the movie.  In the end, Golan does a good job at depicting how both sides of the abortion issue, or any other controversy for that matter, tend to exploit an individual and personal tragedy when the facts surrounding a specific situation conform to their own agendas.  Neither the pro-life or pro-choice characters come off well in this movie.  The pro-life protestors are portrayed as intimidating bullies and fanatics, while the pro-choice protestors are portrayed as opportunistic, condescending, and crass.  I think Golan leaves enough room to allow the audience to come to their own conclusions.  Even though he adds strange touches to the movie, Golan never trivializes the genuine issues that continue to surround the abortion controversy.  "Silent Victim" remains a noble effort on Menahem Golan's part, an underrated film worthy of rediscovery. 

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