Last year I saw the film adaptation of author Jack Ketchum’s novel “The Girl Next Door,” a dramatic thriller based on the infamous case involving a young girl kept prisoner in a basement to be tortured relentlessly by her aunt and cousins. While I absolutely loved the Ketchum film, I was interested to see if it was any better or not as good as “An American Crime,” a festival runner that made considerable waves among audiences, but has yet to be released in America. Determined to seek out most (if not all) of Ellen Page’s prior work, I sought out “An American Crime,” and was surprised to see that it pretty much equaled in quality, and proved how much of a versatile actress Page is and will soon become.
Told through mostly court room recollections that occur after the fact of the vicious crimes committed on young Sylvia, “An American Crime” sets down on 1965 Indianapolis where Sylvia and her sister go to live with their friends, after their parents leave to work at a traveling carnival. The court room premise, while formulaic, allows for a grimmer tone that sets up the vicious outcome of the crimes committed, but doesn’t quite turn Keener’s character into a black and white evil individual. Director O’Haver prefers to set his sights on Gertrude and explore her troubled romantic life and inherent envy towards her daughters, which gives her reasoning in her own mind to inflict punishment on the two girls for even the slightest error in judgment. Catherine Keener gives a great performance as the troubled Gertrude whose own insecurity inevitably turns her into a psychopath, along with the help of equally envious and insecure individuals who contribute to Sylvia’s own fate.
Page gives her typically excellent performance as the long suffering oldest daughter of two who makes sacrifices much like everyone here, and decides to take the grueling torture to spare her sister, who can barely take a belt across the backside. People still clucking about Page unable to shake the mold of the snarky teen should really see her here, as she sheds it in favor of a quietly elegant character that takes her torture in stride and faces that there’s just no chance of escaping the wrath of Gertrude. And she’s hopelessly bound to the basement, because braving escape puts her sister in danger. Director O’Haver delves into the excessive beatings and humiliation suffered by Sylvia in Gertrude’s basement while adding a conscience to the flashbacks in the way of Brian Cranston who is great as the DA for the subsequent trial interviewing the children, and eventually Keener’s character.
He gives a very sublime portrayal of a man who is struggling to stick to his professionalism but can’t help wonder angrily why no one stepped in to stop the series of crimes. I’d love to say that they all lived happily ever after, but that’s just not the case here. However, O’Haver does add a brilliant little twist in the climax showing us what we wish could have been, and the aftermath of what is, all of which is delivered with incredible grace by Page.
Even in spite of the differing stories and themes between writer O’Hagver and Turner‘s tale and Ketchum’s, the moral for “An American Crime” is prevalent: At the end of the day, everyone had a chance to stop this crime and torture, and no one did anything about it. In the end, it’s as much their fault as it was Gertrude’s. It’s a strong film with some rather fantastic performances well worth its weight against Ketchum’s own variation. Gut wrenching performances, a well structured narrative, and a great cast makes “An American Crime” one of the finer movies to depict one of the most gruesome travesties of the twentieth century. While many will choose Ketchum’s tale, this was just as great, probably even better.