Tommy O’Haver’s ‘An American Crime’ (2007)

21May09

Despite having two talented actors like Catherine Keener and Ellen Page as his leads, co-writer and director Tommy O’Haver has created a film that would feel at home on the Lifetime Movie Network. From the title to (the usually solid) Keener’s underwhelming performance, An American Crime is as bland as these “portraits of a murderer” come. Though O’Haver did not approach the material with exploitation in mind, he fails to fascinate the audience with what fascinated him as a teenager growing up in Indianapolis, where the real crime occurred.

I suppose there’s something grotesquely intriguing about how a woman managed to torture and abuse a young girl for two months in a household of ten people without anyone intervening, but I find the Lord of the Flies aspect of this case the most disturbing. The torments Gertrude visits upon Sylvia in the film are, for the most part, pretty tame, at least in comparison to what series like Law & Order: SVU and CSI can portray on television these days. The real Gertrude Baniszewski did much worse to Sylvia Likens, so O’Haver chose not to sensationalize the violence. But if he didn’t intend to shock audiences with graphically depicted torture or suggested extreme abuse, then O’Haver needed to make a compelling, tense psychological thriller. Instead, he fails to create any atmosphere or dramatic tension, fails to explore the social and psychological conditions that enabled this crime, and fails to produce an intriguing representation of the perpetrators.

I could forgive coming out of the theater still questioning why Baniszewski tortured Sylvia Likens or why so many children became complicit in her abuse if the characters and performances were memorable, but the script and O’Haver’s direction also fail here. I understand why Catherine Keener would choose a more subdued approach to Gertrude, but it’s disappointing that she never lets a little bit of insidiousness or villainy shine through. I’m puzzled why Ellen Page would choose to play Sylvia, unless a large chunk of the film was cut for some reason. Little is required of her except to seem completely innocent and play the passive victim. Though apparently Page really committed to the part: supposedly she chose not to eat much during filming because Sylvia wasn’t being fed. But if you’re in the mood to see Page in a disturbing thriller, pick up Hard Candy instead.

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