Friday, May 29, 2009

American Crime

American Crime tells a troubling tale of abuse ripped directly from the headlines. The disturbing thing about this film is that it is not an isolated incident. It seems like stories of this nature have become too commonplace. What makes American Crimeeven more shocking lies in the fact that these events transpired in the 1960s. A time that many people hearken back to as a simpler time. We forget that events like this are not limited to the present day.

American Crimepresents a stylized version of the events surrounding the abuse-induced death of Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page). Likens is left in the charge of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a troubled mother who struggles raising her own children alongside Sylvia and her sisters Jennifer (Hayley McFarland) and Betty (Romy Rosemont) and their brother Lester (Nick Searcy). Gertrude seems to struggle with mental illness, using Sylvia as a "whipping boy" for any conceived fault of her own daughters Paula (Ari Graynor), Stephanie (Scout Taylor-Compton), Marie (Carlie Westerman) and Shirley (Hannah Leigh Dworkin). Gertrude also had a son Johnny (Tristan Jarred).

Sylvia's abuse begins gradually but quickly evolves into nothing short of torture. The most distressful aspect of the abuse was how open it became along with the number of people involved. Sylvia is locked in the basement for an undetermined amount of time. Gertrude indicates that the punishment is open-ended. While Sylvia remains locked in the basement, the other children and eventually neighborhood children are invited in and allowed to participate in ritual abuse. The level of degradation and torture reach stomach wrenching proportions and include extinguishing cigarettes on skin, branding and hosing down. The abuse is recounted in a trial where the children recount their observations and, astonishingly, their participation in the abuse.

Courtroom dramas have a tendency to be slow paced. Although the story is compelling yet sickening, the story trudges along at times at a snails pace. The film was boring at times. I'm not sure if there would have been an adequate fix to speed the pace up or make the story more interesting. By creating a framework to recreate the scenes by using the courtroom testimony, the film managed to create a degree of interest, but the sluggishness still made viewing tedious at times.

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