Compared to what’s on the evening news on a nightly basis, the otherworldly plots and conventions of horror movies are a welcome respite. I can eat a pile of sushi whilst cannibals engorge themselves on the innards of hapless explorers, roll my eyes as topless coeds are hacked to bits by masked maniacs, and giggle like a madman as men, women, and children are devoured by just about any mutant animal/mineral/vegetable that’s ever hit the silver screen. To me, that’s entertainment; fun, frivolous, and fantastical. What really scares me is the sick things real people are capable of doing, as displayed in Tommy O’Haver’s “An American Crime”.
“An American Crime” is based on the notorious case of Sylvia Likens (achingly portrayed in the film by “Juno’s” Ellen Page). In 1965, Likens and her disabled sister, Jenny, were put in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), and what followed was one of the most heinous abuse cases in Indiana state history. The Likens sisters were routinely beaten, humiliated, and deprived of food and water. The elder sister, Sylvia, took the brunt of the physical abuse, however, with Baniszewski lording over increasingly cruel torture sessions carried out by her own children, as well as other kids “invited in” from the neighborhood to take part. Sylvia Likens was beaten, raped, mutilated, and violated in every sense of the word for three months, eventually succumbing to a brain hemorrhage and malnutrition at the age of sixteen.
While 2007’s “The Girl Next Door”, a film based on Jack Ketchum’s novel, mined the same territory as An American Crime, Ketchum’s story was loosely based on the case, and, according to the author, himself, not nearly as horrific as the actual case. While I’ve read Ketchum’s book, I’ve not seen the film (nor do I plan to, as reading the book was harrowing enough), but I will say that, after seeing An American Crime, the author was right on the money.
One would think that the “star power” of Page and Keener would somehow soften the blow of this film, but, to the contrary, the actresses so thoroughly inhabit their roles that they disappear into the world O’Haver’s recreated, making the film all the more authentic – and, as a result, that much more uncomfortable to watch. Personally, I found this film truly unsettling and maddening. Seeing as how I’m familiar with the case and knew where it was all heading, I just felt as though I were punishing myself by sitting through it.
Now that’s not to say this is a bad movie; far from it – the performances are fantastic, and O’Haver does a wonderful job crafting the sadistic little microcosm of Gertrude Baniszewski and her ilk. My problem is that it’s so hopelessly downbeat (and, given the subject matter, rightfully so) that I I really don’t know where I stand with An American Crime. On the one hand, it’s a well-made, wonderfully acted, and heartbreaking piece of cinema, but, at the same time, it’s such a brutal experience sitting through this film that I can’t possibly recommend it as “entertainment”.
Then again, that’s probably the whole point.