A horrifiying real-life crime from 1965 Indiana is recreated with almost scientific verisimilitude in Tommy O'Haver's first serious drama, An American Crime. Although often excruciating to watch, it is so well-crafted and well-acted that its portrait of casual savagery in the burbs resonates long after the end credits roll.
First Look, which financed the film, has a hard road ahead releasing An American Crime into the domestic and international markets following its Sundance Film Festival premiere. While the film will make some headway on arthouse circuits with strong support from critics, especially for Catherine Keener's awards-worthy performance, word of mouth on the disturbing material will be mixed. Its unrelenting assault on innocence may well prove too hard to stomach for some parents, especially since the story contains none of the redemption a fictional yarn would fabricate.
American Crime opens domestically this summer.
Production company Killer Films, of course, is never shy of documenting a true-life crime, whether it's Boys Don't Cry (1999) or Swoon (1992), Mrs Harris (2005) or Party Monster (2003), Infamous (2006) or the upcoming Savage Grace. The company has developed a habit for delving into the dark side of the American dream and An American Crime is a chilling addition to the Killer cannon.
The film is an admirably brave attempt by O'Haver to stare at the human capacity for cruelty in the face and try to understand its nature. His previous credits, namely Get Over It (2001), Ella Enchanted (2004) and Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998), couldn't be further removed from this.
The film follows two teenage girls - 16-year-old Sylvia Liken (Ellen Page) and her polio-stricken 14-year-old sister Jennie (McFarland) - who are the daughters of travelling carnival workers. One summer, her parents go on the road and leave the girls with a complete stranger, a cash-strapped single mother of six who attends their church - one Gertrude Baniszewski (Keener) - in return for weekly payments of $20.
Sylvia and Jennie are welcomed into the new family. Sylvia becomes fast friends with 17-year-old Paula (Graynor), who contributes to the household's meagre earnings through a part-time job. Gertrude barely gets by with money she makes from ironing and sporadic maintenance payments for her new baby from his father Andy (Franco), a young layabout 15 years her junior who is about to go off on military service.
Gertrude battles asthma, exhaustion and depression and starts to take out her frustrations on the new girls. She beats them with a belt when her parents' cheque fails to arrive one day, for example, an illogical act which is the harbinger of much worse to come.
Indeed, when Paula tells Sylvia that she is pregnant by her married boyfriend, the real problems start. Paula falls out with Sylvia and lies to Gertrude that she is spreading rumours about her at school; Gertrude steps up her disciplinary action against Sylvia. She burns her with cigarettes and forces Paula to slap her.
When rumours of Paula's pregnancy start to surface, Gertrude refuses to believe that they are true and blames Sylvia. She has Sylvia thrown literally down the cellar steps and keeps her locked up there, enlisting her kids and their friends to teach her a lesson - which consists of unspeakable and repeated violence and abuse.
The film is framed by the court case at which Gertrude was tried for her actions against Sylvia.
It's fascinating to observe the process whereby the adult in power vilifies Sylvia and thereby makes it acceptable for the neighbourhood kids to abuse her. Like Jews in the Nazi camps, she is stripped of her humanity and somehow then becomes an acceptable and easy object of torture.
And it is torture. By the time Gertrude starts to brand the girl with a hot needle, only the hardest of hearts won't be squirming in their seats.
Central to the film's power is a thrillingly against-type performance from Catherine Keener who has traditionally been cast in roles drawing on her innate intelligence. Here she plays a white trash woman of limited wisdom who commits appalling acts, but Keener makes her descent into depravity far from predictable or caricatured. Her complex characterisation lends more than a degree of humanity to Gertrude. Her continual fatigue and rage at her lot lead her to create a hapless scapegoat under her own roof.
Keener's performance is matched by Ellen Page, the explosive newcomer from Hard Candy, who plays Sylvia with a genuine sweetness whose destruction is devastating to witness.
First Look Pictures
First Look International
Jocelyn Hayes Simpson