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SBIFF 2023: Miranda's Victim, American Outlaws: Faces of True Crime

Michelle Danner’s “Miranda’s Victim” and Sean Mcewen’s “American Outlaws” are two compelling stories that resist the padding often seen in television’s cottage industry of limited series true crime offerings. 

“Miranda’s Victim,” which had its world premiere as the opening night feature at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, unfolds on two tracks. The first, like the most indelible true crime stories, tells a pivotal story of justice denied and delayed for a young woman who was kidnapped and brutally raped. The second charts the heretofore untold (on screen, at least) origin story of one of the most well-known judicial protections on the books, the Miranda Rights.

Even if the only cop show you’ve ever watched is “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” you can probably recite the Miranda Rights. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Miranda, and perhaps one reason it has resisted dramatization is that the man at the center of this landmark case that went to the Supreme Court was guilty, and some audiences may not be consider the big picture as they think, “Rights be damned, lock him up.”

Because our hearts go out to then-18-year-old Patricia Weir (Abigail Breslin, heartbreaking), who works at the local movie theater and is saving up money to pursue a career. Her attack at the hands of Ernest Miranda (Sebastian Quinn) and her steadfast decision to report the crime and see him imprisoned puts her on a collision course with a callous justice system, as well as her mother (Mireille Enos, currently in AMC’s limited series, “Lucky Hank”), who tries to dissuade her from reporting the crime to the police for fear that she will be considered “ruined” and “damaged goods.” (Weir elects to not tell her husband before they are married.)

“No one believes the victim,” she is cautioned. (A jarring statistic that closes the film reports that for every 1,000 sexual assaults committed in America, only five result in a criminal conviction; perhaps another reason Weir’s story has long gone untold.)

Weir has her champions, including her sister (Emily VanCamp), the detective investigating her case (Enrique Murciano), and her lawyer (Luke Wilson, ingratiating at his earnestness). But Miranda’s case comes to the attention of ACLU lawyer Flynn (Ryan Phillippe), who argues that his client's rights were violated when he was manipulated into confessing, and takes the case to the Supreme Court. 

The script sometimes wields a heavy expository hand (“It’s been ages since a Supreme Court decision has been read publicly,” a clerk remarks to Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan. “It’s historic,” he replies). 

Danner is an esteemed L.A. acting teacher, but what she really wanted to do was direct (this is her sixth feature film). The distinguished cast (Andy Garcia as Miranda’s initial lawyer and Donald Sutherland as a compassionate judge) is uninformedly excellent in a film they clearly did not do for the money (one of the joys of the endangered mid-budget film). 

While Weir story is at the heart of “Miranda’s Victim,” there is no such rooting interest for the fugitives in “American Outlaws,” which belongs to the “only in America” true crime subgenre. That’s the tack that GQ writer Kathy Dobie took in her long-form piece, The Whole True Story of the Dougherty Gang, which was the basis for this taut and gritty screen adaptation.

For all the talk of family in “American Outlaws,” you might think you were watching a “Fast and the Furious” spinoff. But what a family: siblings Ryan, Dylan, and Lee-Grace Dougherty had the media following their every move in 2011 when they embarked on a crime spree that began in Florida and ended in a shootout in Colorado, with a South Georgia bank hold-up and other random acts of terror in between. No one was killed, which their judge termed a miracle. They were sentenced to a collective 179 years in prison.

The Doughertys typify the “us” that Jim Thompson wrote about in “The Killer Inside Me”: “All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad.”

What Dylan (Sam Strike) did was exchange texts with an underage girl, a misunderstanding, he claimed). (Much like the film of “In Cold Blood” skipped over the bit where Dick and Perry swerve their car to hit a dog, so does this movie leave out the detail that he thought the girl was 13 years old; she was 11).

This was a parole violation that threatened to ultimately send him to prison due to a technicality—there was no mail service where they lived in Lacoochee, Florida, and Dylan needed two pieces of mail to obtain an ID that would depict the sex offender status that, with his girlfriend about to give birth to their child, would prevent him from participating in family activities where other children would be present. 

Ryan (Emory Cohen), his older brother, impulsively hatched a plan for himself, Dylan, and Dylan’s twin sister, Lee Grace (India Eisley), a stripper and drug addict, to make a run for the border. It all goes wrong quickly when the police flag their car for speeding, and gunfire is exchanged. 

The siblings’ unbreakable bond does not make these scuzzy criminals more sympathetic, and mileage will vary on the apparent attempt to elevate their crime spree into a statement on the American Dream. Variations on “We weren’t alone ‘cause we had each other’ and “Family first, always” get tiresome after a while. To its credit, the film does not glamorize the Doughertys. Folk heroes, they are not. Just ask the kindly elderly couple who will regret offering the trio hospitality. To its credit, the film does not glamorize their dee

Scenes alternate between the siblings and law enforcement pursuing them. Treat Williams (the cast’s biggest name) and Cory Hardrict etch an entertaining mentor-mentee dynamic.

Some crackerjack scenes bristle with tension, including the bank robbery and the climactic pursuit. But it’s the quieter moments that linger. In an affecting scene in a gas station, impending new father Dylan gets lost in a reverie talking to the attendant about his future with his son before an ill-timed radio bulletin reminds him he doesn’t have one.

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based film critic, entertainment writer and DVD reviewer. He has been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Printer's Row Journal, Los Angeles Times, Movieline and Entertainment Weekly.

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