Pros: Keenen and Page are excellent, Powerful original story
Cons: Disturbing scenes
An American Crime (2007) is not intended to be torture porn, but in many ways it makes for more difficult viewing than Eli Roth’s Hostel movies. It’s based on a true story in 1965 Indiana, about a 16 year old girl left in the custody of a stranger by her parents who was excessively beaten and punished to the point of torture.
The director and co-writer is Tommy O’Haver who had marginal success with 2004’s Ella Enchanted. That An American Crime became classified as a TV movie is somewhat unfortunate. Having premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival it received mixed reviews and was destined to go straight to DVD before Showtime picked it up. It was subsequently a resounding success, most notably with Catherine Keener receiving Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, and currently averages an impressive 7.4 on IMDB. Although the title of the movie refers to the crimes that happen in the average American neighborhood, another major crime would have been if this story didn’t get the attention it deserved.
The movie is framed by a court case that provides flashbacks to the main story. We meet Sylvia Likens and her younger sister Jenny. Their parents travel as carnival workers and think nothing of offloading their daughters on others. So it is that with more work on the horizon, they leave the girls in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a woman they only met once but a seemingly good church going mother of six. It seems like a perfect solution; Gertrude is unemployed and sees the opportunity to make a little extra cash, while the Likens girls develop an immediate bond with Gertrude’s daughters. However it’s not long before Gertrude’s psychological instability is revealed. Her youngest child is the result of an affair with a 22 year old local, she has a condition of asthma, drinks, smokes and self-medicates, and thinks nothing of pulling her oldest daughter out of school to support the family rather than going out to work herself.
When Mr. Likens’ first check fails to show up on schedule, Gertrude is quick to exact punishment on the two girls. Jenny suffers from polio, so Sylvia offers to take her share for her. Little does she realize that she’s setting herself up as the family scapegoat, the outlet for all Gertrude’s frustrations. Sylvia’s naivety lands her in deeper trouble and the discipline gets gradually worse, beatings, burns, isolation and a particularly disturbing scene of sodomy. Sylvia and Jenny simply live for the day that their parents will return, enduring the severe treatment in the meantime.
An American Crime confronts us with some extremely challenging imagery. It’s not especially graphic but the suggestion of what is happening is difficult to grasp. That’s probably the reason that the movie didn’t get initially favorable reviews. But such is the authenticity of its source that it does demand our attention, despite its lack of taste. It’s a heartbreaking subject, even more so when you witness the misguided actions of Gertrude’s children and the passiveness of the neighbors. In the 1960’s when you heard screaming behind closed doors, you just figured it was better left alone.
Especially compelling is Catherine Keener’s performance. I’ve never seen her play a character with this much depth. Gertrude is a detestable character, and that Keener draws these emotions of revile from us is even more impressive when you consider that she plays her in such a quiet, subdued way. Often times she’s passed out on the couch, able only briefly to lift herself to administer a beating. She captures the nuances of motherly love, sickness and middle age disappointment extremely well. Ellen Page is equally impressive as Sylvia. Having seen Page in Juno and Smart People, I thought she was on the verge of being typecast as hip and sassy, but in Sylvia there’s none of that. There’s a hopeless resignation about her and a God loving faith that all things will pass.
The story’s framing is exceptionally well done. Its non-chronological storyline and artistically creative editing help add an element of mystery. This might be a true story, but it’s one that many might not know, myself included, and O’Haver’s style doesn’t allow for any spoilers. There are even a couple of surprise twists for good measure. But essentially and importantly, O’Haver does avoid all temptations to over-dramatize events. He instead sticks predominantly to the facts as transcribed in the court records. There’s no attempt to justify, explain or understand: it’s just a story that sticks to the record. Resisting attempts to push the nerves, O’Haver frequently turns away the camera in some of the movie’s more difficult scenes and there was apparently much worse in reality than he actually shows here.
The initial critical response was one of poor taste, and several questioned whether it was a movie that needed to be made at all. Subsequent responses have been more favorable, and it’s clear that this is an important story that needed to be told to a wider audience. It’s a story that’s as relevant today as it was 44 years ago. An American Crime is a good movie, for the fact that it’s such a powerful story, one that the director pretty much allows to tell itself.
Verdict: 4 Stars Highly Recommended