An American Crime
Remember that sinking feeling in the spring of 2005, when it was announced that Michael Bay would be directing Transformers? The world’s population of cinema buffs took one big collective sigh and gave up on the hopes of a worthy homage to one of the most beloved toys of the eighties. It’s a perfect example of how a good idea can go so, so wrong in the hands of the wrong director. The same is true of the 2007 Sundance film An American Crime, although it’s clear that equal parts of the blame lie with director Tommy O’Haver (Get Over it!) and with Irene Turner (Hard Pill) who co-wrote with O’Haver.
The tale of An American Crime is based on a true story, and it’s really one of the most disturbing crimes in American history. If you don’t know about Gertrude Baniszewski and what she did to Sylvia Likens, read it here on wikipedia. It will blow your mind. Because I was aware of the backstory, I desperately wanted to see this at the 2007 festival. Showing conflicts made this impossible, but it’s finally out on DVD. Catherine Keener headlines as Baniszewski, Ellen Page plays Silvia, James Franco play Baniszewski uber-loser of a boyfriend, and there are a few other respected actors (like Bradley Whitford) that sprinkle cameos here and there.
Basically, Baniszewski accepts two teenage girls as borders in her home that she shares with her six biological children. She’s ill (it’s not made clear with malady), there’s no man supporting the family, and she may have a small prescription drug problem (mind you this all takes place in Indiana in the sixties). Sylvia and her sister are left with Baniszewski for twenty dollars a week, while her parents tour with a carnival (I’m not kidding). Seeking an outlet for the bitterness cause by the steaming pile that life has served her, Baniszewski starts abusing Sylvia: beating her with belts, rounding up neighborhood children to sear words in her body with a hot needle like ‘I’m a prostitute and proud of it.’ The horrors piled on Sylvia are unending, and unbearable.
The story itself, is as dark and brooding as real life allows. It’s like Hostel, but this actually happened. The problem is, O’Haver butchered it like Bush butchered our economy. Central acts that should have been the most powerful, lacked any sort of intensity. First class performances by Page and Keener (who have both yet to let me down in a film) couldn’t save this middle-of-the-road waste of time. The script chose to gloss over the bitter truth of the story in lieu of unreliable, first-person narrated fantasies, unending shots of Keener crying on a couch, and a whole lot of other boring elements that makes this film not even worth a rental. The end was so cushioned against the terror and dread of the real story, that you actually don’t really care what happens to Sylvia. It’s an American crime to watch this film.