…is, like, an hour of child torture prefaced by a half-hour of sunny building dread and punctuated by flash-forwards to a courtroom to remind us, again and again, that the horrors depicted are based on actual events. Christ, what a slog. Catherine Keener plays Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother supporting six kids in 1960s Indiana who takes on two more girls as borders to bring in some much needed extra income. She fixates on the elder, Sylvia (Ellen Page, of "Hard Candy"), declaring her a "bad influence" despite any evidence of the fact, and coming up with increasingly sadistic punishments that eventually lead to the girl being tied up in the basement, where the Baniszewski and neighborhood kids stop by to punch her, burn her with cigarettes and fail to come to her aid or alert anyone of her plight. Keener alternates between blowsy, maternal and terrifying â€” she does the best she can with the character, but Gertrude’s psychology remains a mystery. Is she crazy? Is she drugged up beyond comprehension? Is she just filled with, as the film sometimes implies, poverty-induced rage in search of an outlet? That "An American Crime" is based on a true story necessitates the question it refuses to answer: How did something like this happen? The title implies that the wrongs visited on Sylvia sprung from our national subconscious, uniquely shocking because they took place in a warm-toned, Baptist heartland town â€” but that darkness lurks in them there Midwestern states is no more a cinematic revelation than learning that it lurks in the suburbs, or amongst the ranks of the wealthy and bored, or in the hearts of men and women everywhere.
First Look will release "An American Crime" on August 17.
+ "An American Crime" (Sundance)