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Film Review: “An American Crime” (2007)


Directed by: Tommy O`Haver

Written by: Tommy O`Haver, Irene Turner

Cast: Catherine Keener, Ellen Page, James Franco, Hayley McFarland, Nick Searcy, Romy Rosemont, Ari Graynor, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tristan Jarred, Hannah Leigh, Bradley Whitford, Michael O`Keefe, Carlie Westerman, Michelle Benes

While watching “An American Crime”, at halfway if not right from the beginning, tears will stream down your eyes and leave you emotionally devastated!

Back in the 1900’s, there were many events such as war and famine that left families standing in long lines to buy a loaf of bread, a pound of meat or other basic food items for survival. In 1965, at Gertrude Baniszewski’s house in Indiana, U.S.A., there were also long lines. But her line up was not people wanting to buy something to eat.  It was for people who wanted to torture, to beat, to cripple, to disfigure, and to burn a young girl with cigarettes and matches. Hers was a line of depravity and twisted minds which most people will find horrifying!

Gertrude Baniszewski`s house was open to anyone who wanted to have “fun” with a helpless, defenseless, sixteen year old girl. Sylvia Likens happened to live in the house of the most brutal, heartless, and ruthless person that has ever lived. Sadly, in the entire neighborhood, there was no one who would step forward to come to Sylvia’s defense or to call for help. Gertrude, her kids, and the neighborhood children did anything they wanted to with Sylvia, anytime they wanted to, leaving her to die in the most painful and torturous way possible, as a result of what one official called ‘the single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana’s history’ – to cineastes it is known under the title of “An American Crime”.

This movie is based on a true story. In July 1965, Lester (Nick Searcy) and Betty Likens (Romy Rosemont) were travelling carnival workers. Since they could not afford to look after their two daughters, Sylvia, 16 (Ellen Page) and Jennie Likens, 15 (Hayley McFarland), while they work across the state, it was proposed to the parents that the Baniszewski’s take their girls as boarders in return for $20 a week in compensation. However, when Lester Likens`s first payment was late, Gertrude (Catherine Keener) beat up the girls, and soon after, locked Sylvia in the basement.  She began a bathing regime to “cleanse” Sylvia of which several different forms of torture were involved: cutting out filthy words into her abdomen with a hot sewing needle, burning cigarettes and matches on her body – and that is just the start. After all, being overprotactive of her children to a stage of madness, Gertrude maked sure that the crime perpetrated by her against Sylvia will be the most brutal and excruciating in terrifyingly perfect way leaving Sylvia no chance for survival.  And for you, as viewers, she will leave you nothing, but ‘tears to wipe from your eyes’.

“An American Crime” is a crime-drama film written and directed by Tommy O`Haver and officially premiered in May, 2008. Since then I`ve seen this film three times.  Every time I watched it, I promised myself never to do it again. However, it`s really hard to keep this promise when it comes to O`Haver`s film since it touches so many aspects of story that still terrifies Indianapolis and all of America. O`Haver does a great job directing “An American Crime” by bringing out all the little details that will terrify you, while making you see the direness of our human condition. But one thing is sure. While watching this film, at halfway if not right from the beginning, tears will stream down your eyes and leave you emotionally devastated! The only question you will have throughout the film is “Why?” But don`t be surprised when you don`t get a response because it’s always hard to explain why people do such awful things to other human beings; to people who can`t defend themselves; why their cruelty and predation are almost unspeakable.

Not many actors would ever manage to make me hate them for their roles, or for their perfect performances as a vicious characters, except for Matt Damon as Mr. Ripley (In “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Antony Minghella), and now Catherine Keener as Gertrude Banisweski. I want to specifically underline the brilliant and mesmerizing performance of the two leads – Catherine Keener and Ellen Page.

When you talk about particular actors, you always want to mention a certain role they ever played, the one that will make you think of them as a certain character and then use it as a reference of masterpiece. To me, Ellen Page, who widely known as Juno (“Juno” by Jason Reitman), will always be Sylvia from “An American Crime”. I believe the actress was the only one who could impassionate Sylvia Likens – the young innocent victim, who literally experienced hell on earth. She was only twenty years old at the time of filming, but was capable of portraying hellish pain and suffering that Sylvia went through. She perfectly developed the story arc from the naive and pure girl in the beginning to tortured emotionless body towards the end, which makes the viewer scream and cry together with her.

Page was not the only one who delivered starling performance. Catherine Keener for this reviewer – is the one who owns the film through her cold-blooded portrayal of a woman who is not only unable to feel compassion but also reveals nothing that could explain her actions. As a viewer, I feel nothing but aversion to Gertrude Baniszewski.  Despite the fact that Keener originally turned down the role of Gertrude, she soon discovered that she could not get the story out of her head and agreed to do the film.  And, I think this is just wonderful; otherwise, we would have missed the terrific performance delivered by Mrs Keener.

Last year, I had a rare opportunity to talk to Keener about her performance in “An American Crime”. I admitted that I truly despised her in this role even though I found her performance extremely brilliant.  I also confessed that I didn’t really like the film, when in reality; it is one of my favorites.  After listening to what I had to say, Keener stated she would call me crazy if I I had really liked the film, as she herself was disgusted with the human behavior in  “An American Crime” and tries not to talk about it. We both were saddened by the story of Sylvia Likens, and could not believe that such a tragic event could have ever occurred to a human being.  Keener added that Ellen Page was excellent as Sylvia, and in her opinion, was the main star of the film. Well, I have to say, I agree, and disagree, with Keener, because, she as Gertrude, richly deserved to be nominated for a Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy Award- even though she would win neither of these prizes.

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