An American Crime (2007)
Directed by Tommy O'Haver
After watching Juno, there is something very disturbing seeing Ellen Page play a torture victim. I was like...stop torturing Juno!!
But Ellen Page is not acting as Juno, but Sylvia Likens. And as Sylvia Likens she gets tortured and punished....horrificly. Watching the true story of this horrific crime was the most grueling 1 hour and 37 minutes I've ever endured....other than playing soccer.
I first read about the Sylvia Likens murder after watching Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door which I ranked #4 on the best horror movies of 2007.
That movie loosely skims the story and gives it a different POV. However, the torture and the horribleness is still intact.
But in this movie, it's Catherine Keener's performance as Gertrude that makes this film more disturbing. In one scene she subtlely asks her son "Who's in charge?" and the son replies "You are Momma". That says it all.
Gertrude believes in her lies, her selfishness for herself is so pure and the delusion she is doing this for her children eventually leads to her downfall.
The true story (based on court transcripts) of suburban housewife Gertrude Baniszewski, who kept a teenage girl (Sylvia Liken) locked in the basement of her Indiana home during the 1960s.
That's he plain vanilla of the plot. Here's the rest.
Sylvia and her sister Jenny are left to Gertrude's care via their parents (who are circus workers). Given $20 a month, she is willing to take care of them though she has 5 other kids.
Gertrude's life is in shambles (lack of money, crying baby, crazy kids), she seems to snap...but in a very calculated way. She decides to take out her frustration on Sylvia. Thus we see these 2 characters begin their eventual demise.
The 2 interlocked stories of Gertrude and Sylvia are critical here. The psychological and physical torture that Sylvia goes thru via Gertrude's delusional madness is suburban america gone awry. Her thought control via her kids makes us wonder why this crime occured.
Intermixed are scenes from the trial. Each of the kids gives testimony and when asked why they also tortured Sylvia too....they answer "I don't know".
One actually has to wonder...are all these kids that really fucked up and didn't know what they were doing was fuckin wrong??
And why didn't the more moral-listic kids call the cops? (which the prosecuting lawyer actually asked Jenny, Sylvia's sister who responded she was threatened by Gertrude and was too scared to do so.)
The neighbors who hear the screams are useless as is the minister.
But if the 60's were devoid of the Internet soaked violence we see today, I could see everybody's obliviousness to this....but seriously....it's kinda fucked up right?
Later on, Sylvia gets accused of spreading lies about Stephanie and is deemed a whore and slut. She gets thrown into the basement and even the most jaded viewer like myself can only watch and repeat during the sickening torture: "That's fucked up."
The ending was a little gimmicky as the audience knows this resulted in a murder. See below.
We see an "alternate Sylvia reality" where we see her escape with Ricky and she tells her parents what happened but in reality it is all a dream and she has died.
END SPOILER ALERT
That wasn't really necessary but serves as a Shylaman-ish like device. Ellen Page's narration is a nice touch and the end is semi TV Movie of the Week.
Sylvia gets beaten up and slapped.
Sylvia's fingers almost get broken.
Sylvia goes through coke bottle/private part trauma.
Sylvia gets starved to death.
Sylvia gets cigarrette burns.
Sylvia gets branded with a soldering needle that reads: "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!".
Little Johnny invites neighborhood kids to ridicule and torture Sylvia then proceeds to burn cigarettes into Juno's skin...err I mean Sylvia.
The Jaded Viewer's Final Prognosis
It's Catherine Keener's performance that steals the show. She plays Gertrude with that abused wife and struggling mother that fits so well on Lifetime. You begin to feel for her character until she starts to abuse Sylvia endlessly.
It seems her punishment towards Sylvia was a reflection on her own life...one she didn't want to believe she deserved.
An American Crime is not as good as A Girl Next Door. It plays out very Lifetime-ish but the performances are awesome-rific. Seeing a pre-Juno Ellen Page is pretty cool as her talent shows here playing a very complicated character.
This movie is not a horror movie but a movie about the horror of a crime so unbelievable, the fact that it actually happened gives you chills.
This is what I wrote below for The Girl Next Door which I have to say applies to this film as well.
There is no huge body count, no excessive gore or splatter, no corny humor or gratuitous nudity.
What is in this movie is seeing evil with a justified happy face in the form of a sadistic psycho mom and her progeny.
There are NO supernatural monsters, unkillable slashers or even mutant sheep, all you see is the evil face of humanity and what humans are capable of doing to each other, that's the most frightening thing you can ever witness.
That really does sum it up best.
The movie is currently playing on Showtime and is on Showtime on Demand. It comes out on DVD, August 19th 2008.