Judge Katie Herrell kept wondering when Sheriff Feivel was going to show up to solve this crime.
The true story of a child's punishment that became a woman's crime.
Steel yourself before watching this movie. Steel your brain for a horrible, unfathomable crime carried out by a mother and her children. Steel your heart against the blase attitude with which these crimes are carried out. Steel your constitution against the thought that it's not only "crazy" people that harbor the capability of brutality inside them. But allow yourself to appreciate the cinematography and storytelling used in An American Crime that makes this tale stomachable, even enjoyable on some levels.
Facts of the Case
An American Crime is based on the true story of an Indiana child abuse case that occurred in the 1960s. Catherine Keener plays Gertrude Baniszewski a single mother of multiple children who takes in two boarders—the Likens children whose parents travel with the circus—for $20/month. When Gertrude decides that the oldest Likens child, Sylvia (played by Ellen Page), is trying to sabotage her oldest daughter Paula (Ari Graynor), Gertrude aims to teach Sylvia a lesson, repeatedly and unmercifully.
There were many times I wanted to look away during the film. And that wasn't because the scenes were overly violent or grotesque; in many ways they were quite the opposite. While modern "horror" movies rely on gratuitous violence, gore, or psychological menace, An American Crime slipped utter brutality into everyday life. Frequently the brutal shots were set up scenes before, with a mild slap on the face, a foreshadowing of evil in the young son miming a gun shot, or just a dog going hungry while food rested inches away.
These lead-in scenes built the tension level of the movie to such a level that by the time the actual abuse scene arose I was prickled with worry, wondering what would befall the meek Sylvia: "Oh, God, what is that glass bottle for?"
And while the movie didn't revel in those scenes, and actually cut away during the extreme portions, the vision of what was occurring stayed on like a flash bulb silhouette. Many scenes cut to black, a transition technique that is easiest to use when scenes don't easily match and a more fluid transition is unworkable. But in this case, the cut to black was metaphoric and illustrative of what was likely happening to Sylvia's brain and body. Or it was just for dramatic effect.
During the entire movie, syrupy 60s pop dominated the soundtrack. The music said sock hops and soda fountains, illustrating the distance the Baniszewski household was from reality. Death metal was the real soundtrack, covered up by Sunday visits to church and shiny plaited hair.
This movie constantly used subtle comparisons to illustrate the true evilness of Gertrude and her family. While Gertrude's most recent lover, Andy (James Franco), seemed the overt "bad boy" just looking for easy sex and quick cash, it was he who warned Sylvia to beware of Gertrude and it was Andy who arrived as the voice of reason in the closing scenes while Gertrude sat on her sofa dazedly ignoring the turmoil all around her—turmoil resulting from her actions.
Then there are the actions of the Likens parents to consider. Does their leaving their children after one meeting with a woman constitute child abuse? They left Sylvia and her younger sister Jennie (Hayley McFarland), who is in a leg brace as the result of polio, alone with Gertrude and her already overflowing house so that they could travel with the circus and save their marriage. Sacrifice or self indulgence? The parents' role in the entire case is unfortunately glossed over in the film, and there's a weird dream sequence for Sylvia at the end that doesn't make their involvement or responsibility any more clear.
There's a lot of back and forth in the film, the forth being the criminal trial of Gertrude and her family, the back being the abuse scenario in question. This sequencing is a little disorienting, although it allows the viewer to think about the "how could this happen" aspect of the abuse. It is similar to the questions Abu Ghraib brought to people's consciousness: Does following orders/beliefs excuse some actions or make the perpetrators any less responsible? Seeing as Grace's children's, and other neighborhood children, were physically involved in Sylvia's abuse because Gertrude told them to, or said it was alright, does that exonerate them?
It's important to consider the two main actresses when evaluating this film. I've primarily seen Catherine Keener play the role of a free-loving hippie, someone who's physically aging well but doesn't have much root in the real world. And while this role seems a great departure from that, in that she has so much responsibility and gravitas, in fact she's still sort of the free-loving aging beauty who doesn't recognize reality. The main difference is that in the other films her characters smile, smile, smile, while in An American Crime there's never a smile unless it's calculating. Did I hate her character? You bet. Did I believe her capable of what she did? Yes. On those grounds I have to give Keener immense credit for undertaking and pulling off this role.
Ellen Page's role was likely even more difficult than Keener's. Her dialogue was limited, her appearance child-like and unchanging even as she faced death. A good portion of Page's lines involved screaming, and every time she wailed I cringed, believing her to be in unbearable pain. I wished that Sylvia was allowed more fight, that she stood up to Gertrude and fought back but she didn't. Her character was more or less a silent victim, a role that didn't seem suited for the outspoken Juno.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only special features of this film are the digital surround sound, the subtitles and the previews, none of which I consider special in this day and age. As a true story, this film could have created some Special Features related to the actual case. Much of the film was based on court transcripts, but we only saw the fictional trial when I'm sure photos or details from the real trial would be particularly compelling.
I am also not really a fan of the title of this film. "An American Crime" seems too general or overarching for this tale of one family in one Indiana town. I understand that so many people let this crime happen, and that the country is, reportedly, becoming less community oriented and more isolated…but I that wasn't necessarily the case in the 60s when this trial happened. I don't know that it's fair to brand this case "An American Crime."
Overall, I'm still reeling from this film. There are unexpected times I flash back to a scene and feel a shudder. Times I can't believe that it was a true story that some little child suffered so much at the hands of so many. I know that I'm really hooked on a novel or a television series when I find myself thinking about the characters even when I'm not reading the book or watching the show. And that certainly happened with this film, although the sad part is I can't chalk this movie off as well-written fiction. This was real life, and it's probably real life for hundreds of children all over the world.
Guilty. And thankfully the jury agreed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
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