A sincere and well-intentioned exploration of the crime of rape in America, and a serious-minded look at how the legal system often treats the victim as badly as the criminal, "The Accused" is, most of the way, compelling and chilling in its matter-of-fact presentation.

This is not unexplored territory, of course, though it has been mainly the terrain of made-for-TV movies, ranging from the ordinary "Cry Rape" to the extraordinary "A Case of Rape."

And most moviegoers may feel they already understand that rape is a crime of violence, not passion, and that rape victims unfortunately have to go through an incredible amount of humiliation to see justice served.

But "The Accused" has some twists that make the subject worth going over once again.

The victim here, as played by Jodie Foster, is a bit "loose," as they say. And one night, after a fight with her live-in boyfriend, she heads for a sleazy bar down the road where she smokes some pot, gets a little drunk and flirts with a couple of guys. Then she goes into the game-room at the back of the bar, does a sensuous dance and suddenly is attacked by one of the men she's been flirting with. Before she can say or do anything she is thrown on a pinball machine and raped by three men while a crowd in the room shouts encouragement.

Did she ask for it? Well, of course not, but society often treats rape victims as if they did — especially if they are women with rough edges, as is the case here.

The rape itself, however, is not shown until quite late in the film. Instead, "The Accused" opens with Foster running, screaming from the bar. She stops a truck and gets a lift to the local hospital. There she is examined and questioned, and she meets the assistant district attorney who will handle her case, played by Kelly McGillis.

McGillis is cold and aloof and, though she believes Foster's story, seems less than sympathetic toward her. So she plea-bargains the case and lets the three rapists get off with minimum sentences.

But that just makes Foster feel all the more violated.

Later, McGillis is prompted by a guilty conscience to agree with Foster and decides to prosecute the bystanders, those who stood by and not only let it happen, but prompted the rapists on as if they were at a sporting event.

This is all very well, and for most of the film it appears screenwriter Tom Topor ("Nuts") and director Jonathan Kaplin ("Heart Like a Wheel") will take the high road and not feel the need to exploit the rape itself.

Unfortunately, after giving us several verbal versions of what happened in the bar, primarily Foster's own story _ and after it has become apparent that she is telling the truth with no exaggerations _ late in the film a star witness takes the stand and describes it again, and this time the audience sees it in graphic detail. At this point there is a sense that the movie has been building toward this moment for the length of the film, which is a natural cinematic trick, but does make me wonder whether this film is aiming more for entertainment than enlightenment.

And while it's true that this scene is brutal and terrifying, not in the least bit titilating, it also plays far too long, so that it can't help but seem exploitative and unnecessary. A little bit of this shown during the testimony would have gone a long way.

Further, it gives the audience time to ponder other aspects: Could those in the front of the bar really have been oblivious to what was going on. Would the bartender himself really have been so foolish as to let it occur without calling the police? Since the main witness does eventually run off and call the police, why in the world does he wait until three excruciating rapes are over to do so?

Part of this has to do with the point of the film, of course. Too often people watch crimes and just let them happen without taking action. But, film is such a literal medium that, for me, this was a major misstep.

But it's not the only one. McGillis never really brings any fire to her character, even after she has supposedly become a strong advocate for Foster's rights. And some of her scenes with the district attorney (Carmen Argenziano) seem very false.

And that's especially problematic since Foster is mesmerizing, bringing a lot of depth to a character who is intelligent, but uneducated and crude.

"The Accused" might have reached a wider audience and been more illuminating if it had kept its straight-forward, pseudo-documentary approach instead of trying to play out as a courtroom thriller as well. As it is, it's a noble failure.

It is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity, drugs.