Eric D. Snider

An American Crime

Movie Review

An American Crime

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: C

Released: January 18, 2007


Directed by:


The question I have for the makers of "An American Crime" is: why? What purpose does your film serve? For I have watched it, and I have contemplated it, and I can come up with no good reason for it to exist. It dredges up awful memories and conjures horrific images, and to what end? To inform us that such unpleasantness sometimes occurs in real life? Fine -- but shouldn't part of your agenda also be to show us WHY? Merely relating an awful story and saying, "This really happened" isn't much of a raison d'etre. That's what we have newspapers for.

The American crime of the title refers to an incident in 1965 in which a 16-year-old Indianapolis girl was confined, tortured, starved, and maliciously abused by the woman in whose care her parents had left her, as well as by the woman's own children and by kids in the neighborhood. The woman went on trial, and the case sent shudders across America. It was a creepy story, especially coming from wholesome, Midwestern Indiana. California, sure. They'll lock up and torture kids out there. But Indiana?!

Ellen Page, the young firecracker of an actress who played the vengeful would-be victim in "Hard Candy," plays the victim here. She is Sylvia Likens, a smart, pretty, well-behaved girl with a younger sister, Jennie (Hayley McFarland). The girls' parents travel with a booth on the county fair circuit and must often leave the girls with friends or relatives for weeks at a time. Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) is neither friend nor relative, but she agrees to take the girls for $20 a week, figuring with six kids of her own, another two won't matter much.

Gertie is divorced and in poor health, smokes constantly and drinks regularly, and can claim a much younger local man (James Franco) as the father of her latest baby. She needs the $20 a week badly; the rest of her income is from doing people's ironing and from the part-time job her oldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), holds.

Paula is secretly dating a young married man, Bradley (Brian Geraghty), and she confides in Sylvia -- her new foster sister and gal-pal -- that she's pregnant. When rumors of this start to circulate, Gertie refuses to believe it, taking out her anger and jealousy on Sylvia instead. Sylvia is young and hopeful, brimming with potential. She is everything Gertie no longer is, and she represents what Gertie's own children could have been, if they hadn't had such a screw-up for a mother.

The abuse begins somewhat traditionally (belt whippings), becomes cruel (cigarette burns), and then advances into territory that is downright ghastly (I will provide no examples). Bizarrely, the other children take part in it, and soon their friends from school and church start coming over to beat on the girl in the basement, too. Sylvia's sister, Jennie, is left untouched, too terrified to try to get help.

Director Tommy O'Haver, whose last film, "Ella Enchanted," also centered on a young girl being forced to do things against her will, jumps back and forth between the 1966 trial and the 1965 events in question. The courtroom scenes (with a prosecutor played by Bradley Whitford) take all their dialogue from the actual trial transcripts, and that gives them a certain realistic thrill. We know this is what these people actually said, with the cadences and idiosyncrasies of real-life courtroom testimony intact.

The other scenes, on the other hand, written by O'Haver and Irene Turner, are obligated to take certain liberties, and to fictionalize things that weren't on the public record. This is done believably enough, I guess, in that I can take the movie's word for it that this is more or less what happened. What's missing is the insight.

Why would people behave this way? Gertie gets her one scene to explain her twisted psyche (marvelously acted by Keener, a great actress when it comes to dark material, though it's heretofore usually been comedy), and while one scene isn't enough, it's a start. But what about everyone else? What about the neighbor kids, many of whom, in scenes where they aren't terrorizing Sylvia, seem perfectly normal? When they're asked in court why they did it, each one says, "I don't know, sir." No doubt that's really what they said. They probably couldn't explain it. So shouldn't that be the movie's job, to explain, or at least shed some light on, what causes society to break down this way? And if the movie's answer is, "We don't know; that's just how it is," that simply begs the question, "Then why did you make the movie?"

I suspect O'Haver's intention with the film was, indeed, to find meaning in the crime and to look for its causes; the press materials indicate as much. That's good, because on face value alone, the film comes dangerously close to sensationalism, seeming to re-create the horror just for perversity's sake. I'm glad O'Haver had nobler goals than that; I just wish he'd succeeded at accomplishing them.

Grade: C

Rated R, some profanity, some sexual dialogue, some disturbing violence, pervasive disturbing themes

1 hr., 32 min.

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This item has 8 comments

  1. Doug Prewitt says:

    I have not seen this movie yet, but I definetly going to see it.

    I was 8 years old in 1965 and also lived about 6 or 7 blocks from where it happend.

    I remember hearing something about it back then but adults would not let kids talk about it.

    Now I'm 50 and I still pass that house on New York street about once a week.

    It is a sad sad story but I think it needs to be told.

  2. Bob Hoyt says:

    Erm...I think the point WAS that there was no real reason for the kids. Why should the filmmakers attempt to attribute motives that aren't there?

  3. Sean says:

    The question isn't "Why should the filmmakers attempt to attribute motives that aren't there?"; rather, it's "If there is no reason, what's the point of making the movie, besides essentially creating a 'based on a true story' snuff film?"

    This movie certainly won't open any eyes; if the person is going to watch it, it's pretty much assured that they are already familiar with the motiveless/pointless barbarism that crops up every now and then in 'decent' society.

    It's hard to imagine someone watching this, and for the first time thinking "wow, some people do truly bad things without any reason, even in Indiana"

    Erego, there is no point in the film being made/watched. What does this movie do that hasn't been done before, besides attempt to portray this exact iteration of the "terrible things happening for no reason" movie. Why watch this when there are movies like "funny games", that have the same basic premise, but at least attempt to make it into a higher concept?

  4. Francesca says:

    Well geez, what's the point of doing anything then? I suppose most movies are pointless. Just smile and pretend everthing is ok. Some of the stories in the Bible are just a bit hard to get through too. But I think those are the stories that get to us, and also motivate us to do better, and be grateful for what we have.

    I thought this was an incredibly powerful film and I'm very very impressed with Katherinne Keener as an actress now. It's too bad Showtime performances can't be nominated for Oscars. Because I was born in the 1970s, if I hadn't seen this film, I would never have known such a thing happened. Sylvia Likens story deserves to be told and she deserves to be remembered, esp. since Gertrude basically got away with murder. (The film says a lot about the poison of mob mentality-yet unfortunately this unfathomably sadistic child abuser wasn't ripped from limb to limb by a mob.)

    While I think things like CPS go too far, even taking children away and putting them into abusive foster sit.s like in the film; Moreover allegations of child abuse now days can bring on witch hunts like McMartin, apparently that wasn't the case in 1965 Indiana.

    So in addition to giving a voice to Sylvia and showing how she suffered (I hope you're not one of those dull types who feel this ruins your mood.) it obviously shows the problem when people mind their business too much. And even more interestingly, while feminists like Kate Millet have latched on to this atrocity, it questions a lot of politically correct notions. After all this is a single divorced mother who abuses the unrelated daughter of a "blended" family. Haven't men's groups been screaming that the majority of abusers are women. Isn't this an example of how maybe non nuclear families aren't alway so progressive and great?

    I don't get people that don't relish the growth that comes from facing down something dark and challenging.

  5. Anonymous says:

    And NO, this is still shocking and unthinkable by today's standards. The fat woman in the Silence of the Lambs was treated better than this poor girl.

  6. Robert Peacock says:

    This movie has several points:

    1. The title speaks to the societal responsibility for such a chilling crime. CPS was non-existent at this time in history. The school played no role in inquiring of the victim's whereabouts. The neighbors didn't even get involved when hearing the screams coming from the household.

    2. Psychopathy refers to a disorder that is categorized by a few personality traits including a lack of empathy, callousness, impulsivity, and psychosis (out of touch with reality). Gertrude Baniszewski demonstrates the latter three but not the first one, at least not consistently throughout the movie. The scene in which she tries to connect and empathize with Sylvia, when she is washing her down, is a notable exception. Attempting to understand human behavior can be difficult, and a film that allows the audience to fill in the gaps of a disturbed character's personality is an intelligent and refreshing approach. The heuristic value of this aspect of the film alone is priceless.

    3. Stanley Milgrim (1963) performed a study in which humans were cued to electrically shock another person by pressing a button. This was done when an authority figure asked the person to do this. Of course, the people that were said to receive shock did not in fact receive shock, but what this illustrates is the power of authority. Think about the concentration camps of WWII, and compare that with the manner in which the neighborhood children accepted their roles as punishers to the victim. The horrifying reality is how susceptible we are to the power of authority, and how this principle appears to have no boundaries to the tragedies it creates.

    4. Creating awareness of mankind's darkest capabilities serves to purposes. One, the more we learn about ourselves (mankind), the more likely we are to avoid such conforming behavior. Secondly, on a continuum of black-grey-white, this film certainly falls in the darker shades of black. In a way, we can appreciate the shades towards white more. For example, wouldn't you want there to be some kind of afterlife for Sylvia?

  7. fgsfds says:

    Point 1 in Robert's comment is well put; I haven't seen this movie, but when I read about the actual case, what stood out was that it was a collective crime. The whole community actively or passively contributed to the murder, and didn't significantly punish those who were convicted; rather than society breaking down, as the review says, society's parts worked together smoothly.

    A notable contrast is a case in Wisconsin from last year that's still in the courts and has some superficial similarities in that it involved a child tortured for some time by a house full of people (though he was thankfully rescued); when that story became public, a local bank started a fund to help the victim and raised a large amount of money from donors in and outside of the state. Maybe that shows that things have changed in the past three decades; nowadays, when faced with a horrible crime in their midst, sometimes ordinary people in a community try to do something good even if the legal system ultimately doesn't.

  8. lewis3367 says:

    Hey Snider. you're an idiot. Go read some psychology books about violence/torture and human nature. Do you need movie makers to spoon feed everything to you?

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