There is a lot of craft and some art in Showtime's "An American Crime," but I question whether the world needs even a well-made movie about the torture and murder of a 16-year-old girl. As a story of child abuse, it's too sensational and aberrational to shed much light on the more commonplace -- to use an unfortunately apt word -- instances of that problem. As a story based in fact -- the teenager is killed by an Indianapolis woman, her children and their friends -- it's too much imagined to illuminate the actual events. And as a meditation on human evil and frailty, it fails to go very deep, though it does provide the framework for a number of good performances, with Ellen Page as the victim and Catherine Keener as her tormentor.
As if preemptively acknowledging the difficulty of his situation, director Tommy O'Haver calls the film -- which premieres tonight -- an "interpretation" of what a prosecuting attorney termed "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana." In the summer of 1965, Sylvia Likens and her 15-year-old sister, Jenny, who was disabled by polio, were left by their carnival-worker parents in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a divorced mother of seven. After a support check from the Likens failed to arrive, Baniszewski beat the sisters, beginning a series of increasingly severe and perverse punishments, for mostly imagined or exaggerated crimes, that came to focus exclusively on Sylvia.
What made the case more remarkable is that many of these punishments were meted out by Baniszewski's children and their friends. At some point the abuse devolved into what seems to have been a kind of neighborhood sport that included beatings, kickings, burnings, brandings and a host of worse things we don't need to go into here and some of which O'Haver has generously left out of his movie. By the end of October, Sylvia was dead.
A director not known for his darker sensibilities, O'Haver ("Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," "Ella Enchanted") is clearly righteous in his intent. He wants to honor and not to exploit Sylvia Likens, if it's possible for him to do the one without the other, and he grew up in Indianapolis and so might be allowed a sort of regional right to the story. With co-writer Irene Turner, he has come up with something of a thesis, that (as I read it) Baniszewski did what she did out of a perverse, paranoid mothering instinct.
Because Keener is trying to get at the human truth of her character, and because she's a very good actress, and because she has the most lines and the best speeches, Baniszewski dominates the film -- to its detriment. There are no lessons to be learned from her haywire life; the part leads only to an appreciation of the performance, which is nuanced and subtle within its grotesque bounds, and the sort of thing academy members remember at Emmy time. Page has less to work with and spends most of the second half of the film as a punching bag, but obviously she's going on to great things.
What O'Haver leaves unexplored, or unimagined, is the more interesting -- and timely -- question of how Baniszewski's youthful accomplices became torturers. While the director does well enough re-creating mid-1960s styles, he never looks closely at the kids or where they came from: at how their particular world -- the church, the street, their homes -- prepared or allowed them to think that destroying an innocent girl was a good or necessary or even just a fun idea.
Their world has been cleaned up around the edges, by virtue of its being peopled by good-looking actors, prettily photographed. Keener is not the "haggard, underweight asthmatic" described by an Indianapolis newspaper, who in the single photograph I've seen of her looks like death, not even warmed over. Hunky James Franco has been cast as Baniszewski's much younger ex-boyfriend and father of her infant son, and the other children are all lovely to behold, healthy-looking, well-dressed.
"Torture" as a keyword search on the IMDB film database fetches back the titles of 1,208 movies (with "female nudity" and "independent film" among the most frequently appearing "related keywords"). Last December, another, more graphic fictionalized film on the Likens murder -- "The Girl Next Door," based on a novel by horror writer Jack Ketchum -- was released on DVD. We are living in the age of "Hostel" and "Saw," and if O'Haver's film is not exactly in their vile tradition -- he suggests more than he actually shows, and cares about Sylvia to the point of giving her an afterlife -- its life in the marketplace still boils down to this: It will be sold and consumed as entertainment.
I don't mean to suggest that dark stories shouldn't be told or that the "true-crime" genre hasn't thrown up at least a couple of bona fide masterpieces over the years, if fewer than some of its fans like to imagine. I don't propose a cinema made only of puppies, unicorns and rainbows. There have been damsels in distress, women tied to the tracks, heroines -- and heroes -- stripped and whipped going back to the beginning of the movies. There is some old reliable thrill in it. But is there also a cost?
During the fuel-rationing of World War II, Americans were advised to ask themselves before setting out on a drive, "Is this trip necessary?" Time, like gasoline, is a nonrenewable resource. You want to consider how you spend it.
'An American Crime'
When: 9 ET/PT tonight
Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and violence)