An American Crime (USA; 92 min.)


directed by: Tommy O'Haver
starring: Ellen Page; Catherine Keener; Hayley McFarland
An American Crime
 

Chris says: "Tommy O'Haver's film raises a question I rarely ask of cinema (unless I'm screening shorts, of course): 'Did this really need to be made?' It's based on a true story: in 1965, single mother Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) not only kept a teenage girl, Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page), locked in her Indianapolis basement and tortured her, but also encouraged her own children to do the same. Framed by a recreation of the subsequent trial against the Baniszewskis, the film recounts how Sylvia first came to live with the family, and brutally details how a combination of jealousy, drug abuse, and maybe even some mental illness resulted in a shocking, landmark child abuse case.

"Keener gives a magnificent, understated performance that intriguingly teeters on the brink of nearly making Gertrude a sympathetic figure. Page also continues to show she's a young actress to watch. In fact, the entire film is competent and seems artful, but it's also exceptionally difficult to sit through, at times coming this close to being a snuff film. Some will argue that it has worth as a cautionary tale to the horrors of torture and abuse, but I don't completely buy that—what we get out of AN AMERICAN CRIME is a great performance, a haunting story and an exhaustive litany of atrocious behavior that proves…some people are capable of horrendous things? See the film once for Keener, but only true masochists will want to sit through it a second time. 2.5 cats

"AN AMERICAN CRIME was screened at the Provincetown International Film Festival."

 
Michael says: "For many reasons, AN AMERICAN CRIME is a difficult film. Tommy O’Haver (BILLY’S HOLLYWOOD SCREEN KISS) commits to celluloid, the true crime story of Gertrude Baniszewski, who in the 1960’s kept 16-year-old Sylvia Lykens prisoner in her basement while she, her family, and kids in the neighborhood tortured her until she died. It doesn’t get much more difficult than that, and watching AN AMERICAN CRIME is not a pleasant experience. Yet it’s a powerful one, and I feel an important one. This isn’t some sick piece of torture porn like HOSTAGE or some of those other recent films that seem so trendy nowadays, but a piece of American history. A look at a time and a place where community didn’t have much meaning, and where neighbors closed their eyes and turned their back on anything unpleasant happening right next door.

"Estranged, ex-carnies Lester and Betty Likens have an opportunity to repair their marriage by going on the road and working for the carnival once again. Unfortunately, they’ve got two daughters, Sylvia and Jenny, who need looking after. Enter Gertrude, with five children of her own (more in real life) who offers to take the girls in for $20 dollars a week. At first things are fine, Sylvia befriends oldest daughter Paula and Gertrude, although preoccupied with her ill-health, her boyfriend trouble and her financial woes, treats the girls at least as well as her own children. Things quickly go sour when Paula becomes angry at Sylvia and tells her mother some lies about her. From there the abuse begins in earnest as Gertrude, her children and the neighbor kids torture Sylvia in shocking and unspeakable ways. Her sister Jenny, who suffered with polio, never take part in the torture, but is forced to accept and watch it for fear of becoming a victim herself.

"What makes this film work are the outstanding performances by Ellen Page as Sylvia, and Catherine Keener as Gertrude. Keener particularly is a revelation in a role unlike any she has tackled before. Halfway, even two-thirds into the film, I could still understand Gertrude (though not condone her actions) due to Keener’s nuanced and understated performance. It is chilling, horrific and tragic. Ellen continues to seek out intensely disturbing roles, but even HARD CANDY pales compared to the emotional intensity of this film. Page has a tough role in this film, playing a torture victim for much of the screentime, but her fragile screen presence, used to deceive in HARD CANDY, is given highlight here.

"The film is not without flaws. O’Haver clearly needed to make this film. The crime took place near in Indiana near where he was raised and the story had haunted him for years. Yet the story arc of the events could not sustain dramatic tension, so O’Haver and co-writer Irene Turner bring us an interpretation of events adding Sylvia’s voiceover at the opening and closing of the film, and adding other sequences that added dramatic structure, but fit the story well. O’Haver makes the story Sylvia’s as a gift to the victim of this heinous crime, but the film might better have been served had it been interpreted by Sylvia’s sister Jenny, who endured the crime as a bystander then again during the trial. Actual transcripts from the original trial are used in the courtroom scenes and add a level of truth that make the film even more horrific.

"I can’t imagine I will want to sit through AN AMERICAN CRIME again, but it is an important and powerful film. See it for Keener’s and Page’s performances (as well as a small role for Carlie Westerman (ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW), but only if you don’t mind being put through an emotional ringer for your cinematic art. 4 cats."