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Hipster Holy Grail: Cruel Justice (1999)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I'll give Cruel Justice credit for taking its premise in a more believable, empathetic, and relevant direction that the majority of movies like it.  I might even go so far as to say I could see it being useful from a social education perspective.  But my overwhelming feeling is that this is Lifetime Movie Syndrome at its worst, with the most over-wrought "tell don't show" moralizing I think I've ever seen.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

Sigh.  It's another movie about rape.

Y'know, like three months ago or whenever it was that I thought it would be funny to marathon every "Justice" movie I could possibly find, I knew there'd be be some rape movies in the mix, but I was expecting at least a couple to be about, y'know, murder or something.  Nope.  It's just rape everywhere.  Rape, rape, rape.  Everybody's getting raped.

Cruel Justice doesn't even wait for the movie to get started before somebody's up to the rape game.  It opens with the antagonist, Grant Chadway (Vince Corazza), holding a knife up to an anonymous young woman in his car and demanding that she scream, and then we get the rest of the opening credits.

When it cuts to the bedroom of the main character, Amy Metcalf (Nicki Aycox), I was briefly hopeful.  I was thinking, "Huh, that's a pretty jarring edit, but maybe this one's going to be about how Amy learns that her friend was raped and she tries to help her through all the bullshit that follows.  Or maybe Amy might even try to get revenge.  Imagine that: a revenge movie where the protagonist is a 16 year-old girl?  Haven't seen that.  I'm in."

But no, the movie dashes any hope of that pretty quickly.  Instead, we get some quick back story on the Metcalf family and their drama - they're all pretty average upper middle class white people, but daughter Amy is dating local "punk" (translation: upper middle class white guy with a pierced ear) Dean Joiner (Christian Campbell), of whom father Jerry Metcalf (A. Martinez) disapproves. Mother Elaine Metcalf (Mimi Kuzyk) is caught in the middle, neither fully in Dean's favor nor against him, but regardless, she has backed up Jerry in telling Amy that Dean's not allowed in the house.

Amy's off to go see Dean's band perform in the rough part of town (translation: literally any part of the city with brown people in it).  Once she gets in the club, she sees Dean talking to another girl (who we'll later learn is his sister-in-law), and instead of bringing this up to him in any kind of constructive matter, Amy gets pissy about it and yells at him, then storms away to sulk.  See, now, if I was making a movie about teenage girls, I'd use this as an opportunity to teach young women not to buy into the whole "your man should know what you think and feel all the time" myth.  Maybe we could break down that stupid stereotype by having Amy and Dean get into a constructive, mature conversation like adults do instead.  But what the hell do I know, huh?  Not my place to teach women what to teach to other women.

The point is, Amy's sulking points her in the direction of Grant, who's just sleazing it about at the bar and looking for his next prey.  Grant pretends to be a sympathetic ear and offers to call a cab for Amy.  He then pretends to make a phone call and tells her that a cab will be around shortly.  When it doesn't materialize in a few minutes, he offers Amy a ride home in his red sports car, and she reluctantly accepts.

Cue rape.

Grant drops Amy off at her house afterward, threatening her with his knife one more time to warn her not to tell anybody.  Amy tries her best to keep it a secret once she goes in to confront her angry parents, who are wondering why she's home so late.  She lies to them, then goes to the shower and begins her grieving.

I kind of expected the lying to last a bit longer or to matter a little more, but in literally the very next scene, Amy breaks down and tells her parents that she was raped.  Jerry flies off the handle and, without listening to anything else, suspects that Dean was responsible.  So, he immediately abducts Dean out of his van and whisks him away to the police station to demand that he be processed for jail.  The police quickly confirm that Dean has an alibi, which is when Jerry decides to go and listen to the rest of Amy's story.  This whole sequence would be ironically funny if the movie was about any other crime.

Some more drama happens, but long story short: Jerry gets frustrated that the police aren't able to more efficiently track down Grant and arrest him, so he decides to do some amateur detectiving. Amy describes Grant's car and he gets a list of matching cars from the police, then goes to find each one and does a series of mini-stakeouts to videotape each driver.  Then he plays back the footage for Amy, who eventually is able to identify Grant.

The police arrest him and there's a brief trial sequence.  The defense lawyer for Grant plays all the wretched tricks you've probably heard of in rape cases by this point: "Look at how she was dressed" and "Why was she there by herself" and "She has a history of enjoying sex, why is this any different?"  They speed right through most of this and cut to the chase: Grant is acquitted, and the Metcalfs are aghast.

Everybody tries to process the fallout a little differently. Jerry goes into a bunch of violent episodes, taking out his frustration on inanimate objects and occasionally threatening actual people. Elaine focuses on ways to prevent future rapes and buys Amy self-defense equipment like pepper spray and a rape alarm. And Amy continues to grieve.  She's able to get an anchor and start to rebuild herself after she talks to Dean's mom, who was also raped when she was 14.

Amy and Dean grow closer in the aftermath, and Dean turns out to be a pretty good boyfriend.  He gives Amy distance and just tries to be part of her support network.  The soft touch approach helps and soon Amy is able to resume most of her normal routines, although always with a touch of paranoia and fear.

But since the movie wouldn't be able to have a dramatic third act without a villain, Grant has to ramp up his douchiness.  He stalks Amy and either threatens her directly or gets his stooge friends to do it for him.  He also frequently calls her a slut as loudly and publicly as he can, and creepily suggests that he's going to rape her again.  At least once this leads to him getting punched in the face by Dean, which is an alright scene, but mostly this stuff is in here so that Jerry can keep getting angry.

Eventually Jerry's rage boils over and he starts to counter-stalk Grant, learning about all of his routines and favorite haunts.  Then, when he decides he's had enough, Jerry gets a gun and confronts Grant out on the street.  He warns Grant to knock all his shit off.  Grant naturally smiles like a douche and says, "She was asking for it," so Jerry shoots him in the guts.  I know this is a made-for-TV movie and couldn't get away with it, but oh man, this would've been a great time for a head shot.

Jerry goes to lay low in an abandoned warehouse somewhere while the police look for him.  Amy and Elaine show up at the scene of the shooting and watch Grant die, then they go find Jerry and convince him to turn himself in.

Cue the final stage of the movie, in which the Metcalf family gears up for Jerry's trial while Amy and Elaine teach themselves how to take over Jerry's towing business.  The family lawyer advises that the chances of mounting a good defense for Jerry are slim and hinge on Amy.  (I'm going to ignore any of the actual legalities involved here and just assume that the lawyer is correct.)  It comes down to this: if Amy can make the public believe that she honestly was in danger all along and that she doesn't want her father to go to prison, then her father goes free.  But Amy has misgivings; apparently she's done some soul-searching and she can't honestly say that her father shouldn't go to jail.

This all melodramatically plays out when Amy is suddenly unable to swear to tell the truth on the witness stand.  In the ensuing recess, she talks about this with her dad and he tells her not to say anything she can't bring herself to say.  They agree to let Dad go to prison, and he puts in a guilty plea.

It ends with Jerry getting sentenced to five years in prison with possibility of parole.  Everybody's learned a lesson today, apparently, and Amy and Elaine go back to work.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Although I was disappointed that this week was another Rape Movie, I will give credit to Cruel Justice for trying to do something more realistic than most of the others I've watched.  Most of the positive momentum built up after the rape is in the form of recovery, self defense training, and therapy - things that are a definite good.  In the real world, these are the actual sorts of things that you could do for somebody who was raped, as opposed to trying to enact any kind of vigilante scheme.

It almost works at times, too.  The movie's very good about showing how the things that rebuild Amy's life are helping her, whereas Jerry's Taxi Driver shtick makes him grow more distant and repelling.  If the film wasn't so over-acted, I might even go so far as to recommend it.

But the melodrama - my God, the melodrama.  This is what kills the movie more than anything else.  I mean, yeah, you kinda know what you're getting when you sign on for a made-for-TV production... but holy shit.  There's more nuance in an average episode of Charmed.

I feel bad criticizing the cast, because I don't think anybody in this is necessarily doing a bad job.  They're all hitting the notes they need to.  It just feels like the director was constantly yelling, "Louder!  LOUDER!"

Sigh.  I miss the reservedness of Final Justice.

The problem with moralizing with the volume turned to 11 is that you can't hear the grey area.  Everything in Cruel Justice becomes a black-and-white, hit-you-with-a-hammer sermon.  And sure, some of this is unquestionably evil.  Grant raping Amy?  Evil.  That's wrong.  And when Elaine pointedly states that the only one who should be blamed for Amy's rape is Grant?  Yup, she's absolutely right.

...but when Jerry kills Grant?  Uhh.... eh, I mean, it's not good, but it's not really evil, either.  Grant is actually a threat, both to Amy and to other vulnerable young women.  He's had a history of sexual predation even before her rape, he's already harassed Amy multiple times following the rape, he's implied that he'll do worse (there's even a scene that comes to nothing where he tells his friends that it's time to "strike back," whatever that means), and he's had at least one violent incident when he refused to back down after being verbally warned to leave Amy alone.  So, there's a pretty good case here that Grant is out to cause harm, and since the police aren't doing anything to keep him under wraps, there's a pretty big field of moral ambiguity where the question "What do we do now?" can take root.

The conclusion we get, where Amy is unable to honestly say that Jerry should go free, feels unearned. Why does Amy feel that way all of a sudden?  And why is the movie so focused on the legal aspects of all this, anyway?  If you're going to make a movie where the legal system fails in the first act, aren't you kinda shitting the bed by presuming the system is ironclad when you get to the third act?

Where Cruel Justice could have most improved is in how it handles both trials. The discussion that needs to be had is one about society's expectations of sexuality, the police, and rape laws.  Grant goes free because the lawyer is able to destroy Amy's character.  That's the problem, so let's focus on that.  Let's make it a bigger discussion about how the defense's case would fall apart if society was better informed about rape and less afraid of women's sexuality.

Instead, we get a third-rate revenge drama that ignores its own evidence and doubles down on the moralizing.  The result rubs me the wrong way.  I'm hardly an advocate for vigilantism, but after seeing Cruel Justice, I want to put on a sheriff's badge and start a populist push to return to Wild West standards.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

A decent amount.  We'll go with 30 for obscurity, 10 for being a made-for-TV movie, 5 for having "justice" in the title, 15 overall for the cast (which aren't necessarily in the "you've probably never heard of them camp," but are at best in the "you probably only recognize them from bit parts" camp, which is close enough), and finally, 10 for the use of obsolete technology to advance the plot, as Jerry makes use of a late 90s MiniDV camera during his surveillance / private detective plot.

It adds up to a total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

I found a few copies of it floating around on Youtube.  This is the one I watched.