Monday, August 23, 2010

Reeling Backward: "An American Crime" (2007)

Although Reeling Backward has come to be known as the classic film column, I've stated several times that I reserve the right to reel back as far -- or as near -- as I want. In this case, I'm only going three years into the past.

"An American Crime" was a big story in Indianapolis when its production was announced in 2006. The torture murder of Sylvia Likens remains the city's most notorious crime, and has been the subject of a number of books, magazine articles and even other movies. In the same year it was released, "The Girl Next Door" also came out, with names changed and more of a horror film bent, but clearly based on the Likens case.

And for good reason: The 16-year-old girl was beaten, starved, burned, sexually assaulted and tied up over the course of several weeks in 1965. For good measure, the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" were branded onto her stomach with a hot wire. Horrifically, many of these despicable acts were carried about by neighborhood children, who were convinced they were merely participating in an elaborate "punishment" meted out for a wayward teen.

The making of the movie made local news -- including an A1 story for The Indianapolis Star by film critic Bonnie Britton that I edited -- but for all the wrong reasons. Chiefly among those was that the film, despite being set explicitly in Indianapolis and directed by native son Tommy O'Haver, was shot elsewhere for financial reasons. (Indiana has film incentives, but they're among the lowest of any state that offers them.)

Another reason "Crime" drew the bad kind of notoriety was that it couldn't get a theatrical release, despite starring Ellen Page after her big breakout in "Juno," not to mention indie queen Catherine Keener and other name actors such as James Franco, Bradley Whitford and Michael O'Keefe. I think the film is flawed, but certainly is of sufficient quality to warrant more than the paltry television debut it received.

The final and most insidious reason for the film all but dropping off the face of the earth is the depiction of Gertrude Baniszewski, the caretaker who directed the assault against Sylvia and was responsible for her death. I remember when Bonnie was working on her story, she said something about the movie being sympathetic to "Gertie."

In Indianapolis, saying you're sympathetic to Baniszewski is akin to saying you think Stalin got a bum rap. People say it's wrong to demonize others, but sometimes the bill fits.

"An American Crime" couldn't be called a celebration of Baniszewski, but maybe a feminist defense of her actions. The film goes out of its way to depict her as a victim of abuse by men that she internalized and passed on to the girls under her care.

The depiction is reminiscent of Charlize Theron's portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in "Monster," which also drew accusations of treating a female killer with kid gloves. The unifying theme here is a cycle of abuse that women may perpetuate but not originate.

I do have to say something about the casting of Keener as Gertie. While not a classic Hollywood beauty, Keener is certainly easy on the eyes -- even disheveled and with little or no makeup during most of her screen time. The real Gertrude Baniszewski was one of the most fascinatingly ugly creatures you ever laid your eyes on.

If you Google her image, you'll see that somehow she looked even more frightening when dolled up for her court appearance. Compare that with Keener's put-together look on the stand, and I think it's fair to say a good deal of misplaced Hollywoodization has gone on.

The problem with the filmmakers' approach to such a well-known crime -- O'Haver co-write the script with Irene Turner based on the court transcripts -- is that it's so hard to comprehend such unspeakable acts, the audience can't relate to the people on the screen. The majority of Sylvia's torture at the hands of other children is related in a montage sequence of little power.

By instead focusing more on the character of Baniszewski, the film relegates Sylvia Likens to a cypher with no real identity -- she's simply a vessel for abuse. As depicted by Page, Sylvia is a nice church-going girl who is falsley accused of spreading rumors about Paula, the eldest daughter of the Baniszewski clan. Sylvia and her sister Jenny had been left in Gertie's care by their parents, who were itinerant carnies.

Sylvia never rails against her "punishment," even as it quickly escalates from paddling to burning her arms with cigarettes, and then growing much worse. She's not a person; she becomes a thing that others maltreat. We never understand why she does not protest when accused of doing something of which she is innocent.

"An American Crime" had one notable effect. The house at 3850 East New York Street had lain vacant for most of the time since the Likens murder, but interest renewed when word about the movie got around. Vandalism and break-ins, not exactly isolated given the building's infamy, ramped up. Eventually, authorities saw fit to have it torn down last year.

2.5 stars out of four

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