AN AMERICAN CRIME
Director: Tommy O'Haver
Screenwriters: Tommy O'Haver, Irene Turner
Cast: Catherine Keener, Ellen Page, James Franco, Bradley Whitford
USA, 2006, 92 min.
*Based on a true story that gripped the nation in 1965, An American Crime recounts one of the most shocking crimes ever committed against a single victim. The daughters of traveling carnival workers are left for an extended stay at the suburban Indiana home of single mother Gertrude Baniszewski and her seven children. Times are tough, and Gertrude's needs force her to accept this arrangement before understanding how the burden will push her already-fragile nature to a breaking point. What transpires is both riveting and horrific, leaving one child dead and the rest scarred for life.
Even though a complete reversal of the type of film you expect from him, it becomes clear immediately that An American Crime is a film Tommy O'Haver was destined to make. With profound skill, he controls the complex narrative, the historic period, and a cast of more than a dozen talented child actors. Casting Catherine Keener as Gertrude was his first brilliant idea. With spellbinding clarity, her Gertrude oozes with squelched sexual desire and shifting levels of insanity and evil. She has the uncanny ability to make you empathize even when she encourages the family and neighborhood children to participate in unthinkable activities. The proof? Even though you know the outcome, in a weak moment, you can actually believe her lies.
*Summary by John Cooper, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
I had a lot of problems with this film, the first feature I saw at Sundance this year. The '3' Groar rating I give it is not because this film didn't hit me in any way. It affected me deeply, but I can't bring myself to either condemn or condone it, and feel that the viewers themselves must judge this film. An American Crime is really a love-it or hate-it kind of film. I have seen many horror movies, and can stand a good amount of gore, but the depiction of female-on-female child abuse in this film horrified me. I felt sick after the screening and despite the director's comments to the contrary in the Q & A, I can't see this as anything other than exploitation.
The film looks beautiful, and Ellen Page, as Sylvia, portrays a moral and caring older sister to younger Jenny. When Catherine Keener's character, Gertrude, starts beating and abusing Sylvia, I thought it started rather randomly, as if a scene were missing explaining exactly why Sylvia's small transgression deserved lashes. As the film progressed, I liked the scenes that established the power struggle occurring between Gertrude/Paula (her oldest daughter) and Sylvia/Jenny. I was angry about the lies being told and the assumptions being made by Gertrude, but most movies depend on this kind of misunderstanding, and its important to establish that Gertrude is not a stable woman.
Then the real abuse starts. Between cigarette burns, a horrifying use of a soda bottle, and actual physical mutilation and torture, Gertrude punishes Sylvia for her perceived slights and offenses. I understand the director is trying to shed light on an unexplored cinematic topic of female-on-female child abuse, I just felt that the level of abuse and violence did not need to be shown in such graphic detail. There is such a fine line between showing awful things in order to educate the audience about a dark subject matter and showing horrible acts because you can. For me, it was too much. For others, I am sure this is a touchstone film about abuse, just not for me.
I also had problems with the attempt by the director to humanize the monster that is Gertrude. By the time she started burning Sylvia with cigarettes, Gertrude became an irrevocable monster in my eyes. Each ascending level of torture only enforced that opinion. However, there is a scene near the end of the film where Gertrude goes to see a delirious and beaten Sylvia in the basement and she begins to cry. Gertrude confesses her sins to Sylvia, how she doesn't know what she's doing and if her actions are right and moral in God's eyes. I thought this was a morally repugnant scene. This ploy for audience empathy is straight-up exploitation, because the current vogue in modern cinema is to 'humanize' our monsters. This scene makes a play to understand Gertrude and the actions she has taken, and I think that it is inappropriate to extend a hand of forgiveness to a woman who has done the things she has done.
I was also confused by the use of religion in the movie. Gertrude believes in God and his vengeful wrath. All her punishment is carried out in His name, and she tells Sylvia constantly that it is a sin to lie. But then Gertrude lies repeatedly about her own daughter's pregnancy to a priest. I understand she's crazy, but there isn't even an explanation offered as to why religion is so important to Gertrude when she condemns others, but inconsequential when she judges herself. Can she confess to Sylvia in the above-mentioned scene only because Sylvia is 'dirty' and condemned in God's eye? Does Gertrude believe, in her lucid moments, that she is no more virtuous than Sylvia?
The remaining children joining in on the torture is also extremely disturbing and a further indictment against Gertrude for warping the minds of her children so. I strongly disliked the fantasy 'happy' ending of this film. I thought it didn't belong in a film of brutal realism and torture. In addition, it confuses the audience at a time when things should be becoming most clear. When did Sylvia's hallucination start? What was real and what was not? This kind of twist ending is just not appropriate for this kind of film.
One scene I really enjoyed was the final confrontation between Sylvia and Gertrude in jail. Gertrude sees a silent Sylvia sitting across the room and for a second it looks like Gertrude tries to apologize to Sylvia. She tries, but the words can't seem to get past her lips. In one short scene, the audience gets to see Gertrude's struggle to overcome her stringent religious beliefs and insanity to apologize for what she has done. On a pure acting level, this really is a wonderful moment for Catherine Keener, a couple second exploration of the inner struggle of this monster. That is a wonderful scene, and it is a shame we have to wade through hours of torture to get there.
Whew, I wrote a lot. But as I said, this movie really touched a nerve. And while I can't condone the material shown here by the director, I can respect the technical proficiency, the acting, and the apparent desire to shed light on this true story of abuse in the hopes that it may change a mind or two out there. I also think it is a film that needs to be judged by each individual person. Just because I can't handle that level of abuse, doesn't mean that someone else won't see this film in the light the director intended.