Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on its streaming platform on Tuesday, May 23.
If anything, Nancy Schwartzman’s “Victim/Suspect” too calmly lays out its case over the course of a tight 90-minute running time. The “Roll Red Roll” filmmaker is again taking on the topic of sexual assault in America with her latest film, which follows investigative reporter Rachel de Leon as she unspools tale after tale of alleged sexual assault victims suddenly, horribly being turned into suspects when the very cops meant to investigate their allegations accuse them of faking all of it. Even worse: They are then charged with a litany of crimes, fully completing the cycle from, yes, victim to suspect.
It’s the kind of story that should make viewers rage — at the cops, the system, the world — but Schwartzman sidesteps emotion to cede her story to de Leon, an engaging and dogged journalist who neatly walks us through her reporting process. By the end of “Victim/Suspect,” de Leon has turned up gobsmacking evidence, including numerous incidents of cops just straight lying to these alleged victims, all courtesy of the kind of shoe-leather reporting in short supply these days.
Schwartzman mostly eschews flashy add-ons (there are, however, a few brief uses of chintzy-looking maps that don’t add much), instead relying on de Leon’s gathered evidence, including a heart-stopping array of police interrogation footage, plus de Leon’s interviews with a variety of knowledgeable talking heads. What set de Leon on the track of this particular story — one that took her years to investigate and report out — was good, old-fashioned journalistic passion. In looking for a story she could really dig into in her gig at The Center for Investigative Reporting, de Leon landed on the story of Nikki Yovino, a college student convicted of falsely claiming two Sacred Heart University students sexually assaulted hers after she reported her rape in 2016.
Yovino’s case then led de Leon to Emma Mannion’s startlingly similar case, in which the former University of Alabama student was, just like Yovino, arrested and convicted of filing a false police report in 2016. And Mannion? She flows right into Megan Rondini, yet another alleged rape victim arrested and convicted of filing a false police report just one year before Mannion. And with the same Tuscaloosa police department. While that sort of coincidence might raise most people’s hackles, de Leon approaches every twist and turn with measured curiosity (they could, and should, teach “Victim/Suspect” in journalism school; it’s that concerned with the tick-tock of reporting out a complicated story to the best of your ability).
And yet, despite the seemingly movie-ready occurrences that pepper the film’s timeline, pieces of it often feel muddled. Nikki into Emma into Megan is a natural path to follow, but Schwartzman and de Leon still find time to veer off into other elements and stories that should have been baked into the film much earlier. Sure, de Leon’s reporting took her in some strange directions, but the late-breaking addition of new talking heads and some frankly unnecessary recreations do little to clarify the very important story “Victim/Suspect” is attempting to tell.
Eventually, though, the women get down to it: Mostly, the problem is how cops interrogate victims, treating them like suspects, using horrific techniques to get what they want (as we learn, many of those techniques boil down to “they just lie about it”), inventing entire pieces of evidence, pressuring their victims, palling around with suspects, and basically ensuring that no sensible person want ever want to report their rape if there were any chance their story wouldn’t be believed. Schwartzman and de Leon’s own interrogation of this problem could feed its own film — footage that walks us through the so-called Reid Technique and is then shown in action during one of the film’s many interview scenes is genuinely chilling.
But the rest of the film often lacks that same sense of connecting the dots, the lightbulb moment of seeing so much of de Leon’s work coming to fruition. It’s all so very sober, so deeply sobering, that when actual emotion pops (a sequence in which de Leon starts crying during a pitch meeting, as she walks her colleagues through the story, is a staggering reminder of the real price of all of this), that’s what jars. It shouldn’t be the case — all of this should rattle us and move us into action.
“Victim/Suspect” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release it later this year.