An American Crime

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Would anyone have greenlighted "An American Crime," a movie about a real-life female sicko, were it not for the success of "Monster"? The Gertrude Baniszewski case in 1965 is one of those nauseating wonders that somehow attracts artists who want to dig deep into the details to ferret out some truth about American society. (Note the film's title.) Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," of course, set the standard, which "Monster" did a decent job of emulating as it established an empathetic context for its prostitute-murderer.

"Crime" falls far short of these benchmarks. It is not, thank goodness, exploitation. Director Tommy O'Haver grew up in Indianapolis, the scene of the crime, and he appears genuinely obsessed with the case. Despite his fluffy comedies "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" and "Ella Enchanted," this is the film he really wanted to make.

His obsession never becomes the viewer's obsession, though. The movie is unpleasant at every turn and about as enlightening as the newspaper recap when Baniszewski died. It serves the facts but makes little sense of them. Despite the presence of Catherine Keener as the movie's monster, this depressing though not gripping drama will have little impact in art houses.

Briefly, two irresponsible parents, traveling carnival workers, dump two teenage daughters with a complete stranger. Gertrude (Keener) eagerly takes them in for the extra $20 a week to help feed and clothe her brood by an ex-husband and a very young boyfriend (James Franco). She takes a dislike to the elder girl, 16-year-old Sylvia (Ellen Page), who in her mind is a liar and thief.

Gertrude punishes her by having her youngsters throw the girl into the basement, where over a period of weeks she is subjected to mutilation and torture by the mother, her children and neighborhood kids. (Sadly, the indignities and torture in the actual case were much worse.)

The film is an "interpretation of events" based on court transcripts. While many individuals involved are still alive, O'Haver and co-writer Irene Turner chose not to talk to any. They wanted the freedom to make up things other than courtroom scenes.

Whenever the prosecutor (Bradley Whitford) asks a young witness why he or she did such unspeakable things to a fellow human being, in actual testimony the reply is: "I don't know, sir." Unfortunately, the movie is equally as unforthcoming. The suggestion is that when an adult gives permission to young people to act criminally toward a helpless victim, animal-like behavior seizes everyone. No one, not even Sylvia's younger sister, Jennie (Hayley McFarland), goes to the police.

Keener is an accomplished and talented actress, but the role stumps her. Yes, every choice her character makes in life is wrong and she suffers from asthma, but she does not suggest the murderous anger lurking within Gertrude. There is an unconvincing attempt to insinuate that the real object of her rage is her eldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), who is doing the things Sylvia gets accused of, but this does not explain everyone else's complicity in the crime. Curiously, the most obvious explanation, a diminished mental capacity on the mother's part, is never touched upon.

There is a fantasy sequence near the end -- disguised initially as part of the story -- in which a somnambulant Gertrude suddenly appears in a car's headlights as she stalks her prey. This is the movie's "money shot," but it throws in the towel regarding any understanding of the character. Gertrude is little more than a zombie rising from its grave, longing for human flesh without knowing why.

Alan Lazar's muted music and Byron Shah's moody photography of Nathan Amondson's drab sets establish a Midwestern ordinariness that blankets the blood-chilling evil.

AN AMERICAN CRIME
First Look Pictures
First Look Studios/Killer Films/Oil and Water Prods.
Credits:
Director: Tommy O'Haver
Screenwriters: Tommy O'Haver, Irene Turner
Producers: Katie Roumel, Jocelyn Hayes-Simpson, Christine Vachon
Henry Winterstern, Kevin Turen
Executive producers: Pamela Koffler, John Wells
Ruth Vitale, Richard Shore
Director of photography: Byron Shah
Production designer: Nathan Amondson
Music: Alan Lazar
Costume designer: Alix Hester
Editor: Melissa Kent
Cast:
Gertrude Baniszewski: Catherine Keener
Sylvia Likens: Ellen Page
Andy: James Franco, Prosecutor: Bradley Whitford
Paula: Ari Graynor
Lester: Nick Searcy
Betty: Romy Rosemont
Ricky: Evan Peters
Coy: Jeremy Sumpter
Rev. Bill: Michael O'Keefe
Running time -- 97 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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