Of all the procedures that law enforcement follow, none are as well known as the reading of one’s Miranda rights. We know the basics (You have the right to remain silent, etc etc) but why are they read…and who or what is Miranda? That’s the story that Miranda’s Victim sets out to tell. Not to worry, this isn’t some History Channel documentary, the actual decision leading to the creation of the rights is a very small piece of the story, no this film focuses on the very real, very powerful story behind it while also reminding us just how bad things can be in court even if you are not the one on trial.
In 1963 an 18-year old woman by the name of Trish Weir (Abigail Breslin) was attacked and sexually assaulted. The police quickly arrested Ernesto Miranda who confessed to kidnapping and rape. Under interrogation Miranda confessed to the assault and was subsequently convicted in trial even while his lawyer (played by the always amazing Andy Garcia) screamed from the rooftops about his clients right’s having been violated. Trish is ready to put this horror show behind her and get on with her life…that is, of course, not the end of the story. Enter John Flynn (Ryan Phillipe), a hungry young ACLU attorney with something to prove. Don’t let the association fool you, he’s with the ACLU but the picture painted is not of a lawyer out to right wrongs but of a lawyer who wants to make himself known with a big case. Sadly, for Trish Weir, Ernesto Miranda looks like the perfect client to get him there. Flynn takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court and eventually has the case overturned. Now, I’ll insert here that in a separate trial without his confession as evidence Miranda was again convicted and sentenced to prison, just in case you were wondering if this was truly an innocent man. That last note is important as it informs what the movie should be fully about and that’s the lingering hell that Trish Weir was drug through while all of this was happening. Remember, 1960’s, so Trish was not comforted, not coddled, she was blamed and labeled as “Tainted Goods” with no one to truly support her but her sister (Emily VanCamp)
Wow, if anyone forgot the talented held by Abigail Breslin she has come to remind you in technicolor. This is a tough role, on pretty much every level, and Breslin turns it into her own workshop class on performance. Keep in mind the people she’s sharing the screen with, Donald Sutherland, Andy Garcia, Luke Wilson, Taryn Manning, yet she is far and away the most captivating thing on screen. She manages to capture Weir’s complete desperation for understanding and her longing for the whole thing to be over. In a post #MeToo world it may be hard to imagine a world where the victim of such a heinous crime would be viewed as negatively as the perpetrator. Putting you in this headspace was Breslin’s task and, speaking as a 40-year old white man, she nailed it completely. If I can feel her pain and understand what she went through in any aspect she understood the assignment. The supporting cast was as good as you’d expect given the names I listed earlier. Ryan Phillipe, if not for Breslin’s top tier performance, would have been the stand out. I had forgotten how good he could be, especially when playing a character with less then admirable motives.
While I won’t be surprised to see Breslin’s name in the Oscar nomination list in a few months the film itself is going to be held back from those accolades for a number of reasons. First, while 80% of the performances were excellent, the rest were a little bit extra, as the kids say. I understand the difficulty, when you are portraying characters as backwards as some of these are it takes alot of nuance to nail the part but if you don’t it ends up as a caricature. The second, and main thing, that keeps this film from greatness is the split focus. It certainly seems like the script began as a way to tell the story behind the most well-known law enforcement procedure in existence but the writers (George Kolber, Richard Lasser, and J. Craig Styles) learned during research that, in comparison to the personal story of the victim, the birth of the Miranda rights was boring. Instead of using the rights as a simple framing device they try to give equal measure to both…which never works. The result is a courtroom drama that is at times compelling thanks to Michelle Danner’s direction but lacks the depth and detail to make it’s impact really felt. Thankfully the personal story was rightfully given the preference in screentime so, outside of some deeper dives into character motivations and exploration of the culture of the times, they are able to complete that arc without much issue.
Honestly, I would have appreciated a longer film that spent more time on the importance of the Miranda Right’s existence. Granted, it would be a much easier lesson to impart had the source case had not been protecting an innocent man, but these are the challenges you hope for when trying to write a compelling story. The end result is a film that will teach the world something while eviscerating your feelings but also seems to wander a bit more then a film of it’s ilk would tend to do. I think you’ve probably gleaned all of the trigger warnings necessary from the text above but, needless to say, this isn’t a date flick. Fans of courtroom drama’s, Law & Order: SVU especially, will find their time well spent with Miranda’s Victim.
Just a quick post script. The film ends with a fact that will floor you and, hopefully, shock you into action. Only 5 out of every 1000 sexual assaults committed will end in a criminal conviction. What the film doesn’t point out is just as depressing, almost none of those actually convicted will fulfill their entire sentence. Miranda himself, was sentenced to 20-30 years in federal prison but was paroled after only six.