“Gosnell” review Even with an obvious audience, abortion drama displays glimmers of strong talent

*Full official title: “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer”

Faith-based movies or movies with conservative agendas have it rough in cinema. And I mean that without any sarcasm. It’s not just because their box office numbers suffer, it’s more because they usually don’t receive the financing or support from liberal Hollywood to get made. These stories matter, and since cinema as an art shouldn’t discriminate, it’s doubly sad that a movie like “Gosnell” is partially lackluster in its execution.  

This movie documents the story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell (played by Earl Billings), a Philadelphia abortionist who was arrested, tried, and convicted of murder in May 2013. But this was not spurred on by a legion of pro-life advocates in Pennsylvania or the Midwest; this was an intense investigation led by the FBI, the DEA, and Philadelphia Police Department. Gosnell is hardly a doctor; his office was overrun with cats and vermin, his patients treated with contaminated medical materials, and his methods downright barbaric. It begins as an investigation into illegal drug prescriptions, then develops into a look at the mysterious death of Karnamaya Mongar, a Bhutan refugee. Mongar entered Gosnell’s clinic for an abortion and died when he overdosed her with numerous conflicting painkillers. The floodgates open steadily from there, and “Gosnell” becomes a by-the-numbers courtroom drama reinforced by horrific details of abortions, fetuses in freezers, and disgusting cover-up tactics.

The movie begins with a disclaimer that much of the dialogue is taken directly from written testimony, which automatically gives it a credible edge, instead of just being a pro-life movie that preaches to its choir. In fact, screenwriters Andrew Klavan, Ann McElhinney, and Phelim McAleer go to great lengths to explain that this crime goes much farther past the issue of abortion. It’s about a sadistic “doctor” who butchers his clients and covers it up: a modern-day Sweeney Todd without the music and revenge complex. At times, the script feels a little too desperate to separate itself from blatant faith-based or conservative films, while at other times it’s smart and deliberately challenges us.

A perfect example is when a professional abortionist is put on the stand to explain the procedure from her point of view; she performs it the “right” way, unlike Gosnell, who killed babies after they were born alive. This moment of ambiguity presents us something that distances “Gosnell” from preachy films. The scene makes someone look at abortion as a horrific choice regardless of political stance: pro-life viewers will see a correlation between the woman’s methods and Gosnell’s, while pro-choice advocates are introduced to this mindset gradually without being preached at. No matter a person’s view on abortion, this scene unanimously rallies everyone to align themselves against Gosnell. That is most important, as the sadistic doctor’s actions transcend the issue of abortion.

Unfortunately, scenes like this are what “Gosnell” could’ve used more of. As I watched, I kept being reminded of Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” (2008), a terrifying true story about child abduction and murder in the 1920s. Its runtime is nearly 2 ½ hours, and introduces two riveting court cases just when you think it’s over. The attention to detail, use of real-life testimony, and hard-R rated grisly subject matter all lend it strength to be a dramatic masterpiece. My point is this: “Gosnell” ends at 90 minutes when it feels like there is so much more to discover. And though it doesn’t necessarily need an R rating to be better, the sense of Kermit Gosnell’s deranged ideology is just scratched at the surface.

Sarah Jane Morris (left) plays prosecutor Alexis McGuire and Dean Cain plays Detective James Wood in “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.”

The main issue involves a damning photo of “Baby Boy A,” a large infant that Gosnell killed after it was born alive. The film refuses to show the photo to be more accessible to young viewers, and instead relies on jury reactions to get the point across. I found this to be a mistake, as the movie is already disturbing enough that seeing the photo itself would’ve been a fitting climax. If it warrants an R rating (most likely; it’s a graphic picture), so be it. The movie should be as raw as possible. Not showing the photo gives it an edge of underwhelming sensationalism, which is a common trope that hurts films like this.

Ultimately what harms “Gosnell” the most is mainstream Hollywood. It wasn’t made well because no elite filmmaker would dare touch a project about abortion. It’s amazing that Nick Searcy, an actor with bit parts in last year’s Oscar winners “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” starred and directed this film. He certainly stands out as the veteran performer, playing Gosnell’s lawyer to such a devilish extent that we almost loathe him more than the doctor. There’s no way around the fact that this movie caters to a specific audience, but it dials back the message/preachy content enough to be accessible. It’s too bad the line between the message and the facts is so thin, because the disturbing content is also dialed back, and that hurts the film as a hard-hitting drama.

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