I have always prided myself in being able to guess "who done it," who is going to die next, and how. The horror/crime genre can be formulaic, but even in the really well-executed ones, where you get a jolt of shock and fear, there is a comfort in knowing it isn’t real. An American Crime changed that for me, and I feel also started a trend in popularizing true crime movies while the public media has simultaneously increased its own interest in the horrors that exist right under our noses (i.e.: the women held captive in Cleveland, Jaycee Dugard, The Australian father who imprisoned his 18-year-old daughter in the cellar for twenty-four years fathering six surviving children, and the man who unsuccessfully buried his fiancée alive because he was bored with her). While many classic scary movies such as Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are loosely based on real cases (those, in particular, based on serial killer Ed Gein), “True Crime” horror films haven’t really become popular or regularly produced until today. The real horrors are what humans do to each other each day, An American Crime embodies those horrors and our worst fears.
An American Crime, starring Ellen Page, Katherine Keener, and Bradley Whitford, is a film about the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens by Gertrude Baniszewski, the Baniszewski children, and several neighborhood children. The film goes back and forth between the trial and the flashbacks of events in chronological order. What is so horrifying about the story is it starts so idyllic and real. The progression of events sneaks up on you. You want to look away, you feel guilty for watching, being fascinated, but you can’t not watch. You can’t not feel Sylvia’s agony and question . . . would I do this? Could I become entranced in “pack mentality” and hurt another person? I would like to think I wouldn’t, but one never knows. How many times do we look the other way when a child is screaming and struggling with an adult in a store, not wanting to draw attention or make a scene. What if that child is actually in trouble? What if it isn’t a tantrum and the adult is not their parent? They often tell women if you are being attacked, never yell rape, yell, “FIRE,” because people are naturally inclined to watch out for their own interest and, therefore, become involved as a fire affects them and your rape does not.
Silvia Likens and her younger sister, Jenny Likens, were left in the care of a neighbor, Gertrude Baniszewski, by their parents when they received a touring carnival gig with the agreement of $20 for room and board. Gertrude Baniszewski was a single mother of six children, suffering from depression due to several failed relationships/marriages and trying to provide for her family in a time when women did not typically work. Her income came from default parental checks, laundry, and ironing services. Keener does an excellent job making your feel for Gertrude and oddly understand how someone so unbalanced could find themselves seeking solitude and strength in abusing power, the power of being a parent, being the adult.
Children are taught to be seen not heard, respect your elders, do as you are told. But, what if what they are told to do is wrong? How much can we hold them accountable for their actions? In Baniszewski’s case, she slowly became convinced that Silvia was a whore, thief, and overall bad influence on her children, therefore, Silvia needed to be punished. Gertrude recruited her children and several children in the neighborhood to participate in the punishment; their actions were condonable, even righteous, because they were sanctioned by an adult figure. They were helping Sylvia “learn her lesson.”
According to trial records, Silvia was kept in the basement, repeatedly beaten, kicked in the genitals, burned with cigarettes over 100 times, forced to rape herself with a glass coke bottle naked in front of the other children after performing a forced strip tease, eat her own feces and urine, bath in scalding water with salt rubbed into her wounds, dragged up the stairs and thrown back down them, and tied up naked. In her final days, the number three was branded on her chest and on her stomach the phrase, “I’m a prostitute, and I love it.” In the end, “Sylvia Likens died on October 26, 1965. Cause of death was determined to be brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock induced by extensive skin damage. Sylvia also suffered from extreme malnutrition. She was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lebanon.
The film does a nice job of showing you just enough to be horrified but leaves out the nudity and consumption of feces . . . somehow leaving you knowing that more happens in the basement that you don’t see. It’s like you see it as Silvia does, in a trance of flashes. Most of the torture was performed by neighborhood children and Gertrude’s children. In fact, Gertrude’s children would often invite kids to come over to participate in “playing/punishing” Silvia. Gertrude convinced the children Silvia was deserving of the treatment, and the abuse developed so slowly over time that, by the time it was considered to be torture, Silvia was already locked in the basement with no means to escape, and the children where engrossed in the ritual; they were a pack. In the trial interviews, when asked why they tortured Silvia, two answers were given, “I did what I was told,” and “I don’t know.
Katherine Keener is one of the only actresses I think that could bring vulnerability to such a despicable character/person. She shows us Gertrude’s struggles and her desire to protect her children’s reputations and from having the same life as her: alone, abused by men, neglected, and poor. Clearly, this woman was mentally ill. This does not, in any way, justify her actions, but Keener gives Gertrude humanity as if any one of us, in our worst moments, could let evil take us over. There is a beautiful moment where she is bathing a semiconscious Silvia (Ellen Page) almost apologizing for her actions, thanking Silvia for her sacrifice, needing Silvia to understand it is for the good of her own children. If the town is distracted by the whoring and thievery of Silvia, they will never notice her own daughter is pregnant with a married man’s child. Gertrude slowly becomes delusional and uses the children to enact her fear and rage. Some of the kids participating were as young as 11.
The simplicity of the script and performances along with the haunting score make this a movie that will stick with you forever. The film starts with innocent carnival scenes and music along with '50s playful music and slowly progresses to silence and eerie choir music. In the final scene, we are led to believe that Silvia has escaped to her parents only to have it revealed what we know in our hearts, Silvia is dead. She never had the opportunity to escape. Some children even told their parents she was getting a bad beating and were told, “Well, she must have done something bad. You better not, or you will get the same.” So many times she could have been saved, and yet people looked the other way. This actually happened: a mother encouraged and led her children and a group of neighborhood children to torture and murder a sixteen-year-old virgin, Silvia Liken. An American Crime is terrifying, because it happened and could happen again.
After this film’s release, several other true crime movies were released, most recently and well know is Compliance. Compliance is an independent film based on the true events where a crank caller called the manager of fast food chains nationwide impersonating a police official. The caller would tell the manager a certain female employee had stolen a costumer's wallet and they would have to come to the store to arrest her unless the manager was willing to check the girl's belongings herself. The caller would slowly gain the manager’s trust and, before you know it, the employee is strip searched, asked to do demeaning acts to make sure the stolen goods have not been shoved in any orifices, monitored (while naked) by male employees, and, in one case, forced to perform oral sex on the manager’s boyfriend while he was on watch duty at the caller’s command. It’s as if we relieve ourselves from responsibility for our actions once we are given permission by someone in a position of authority, like a parent or police officer.
The second film that came out was called Mockingbird Don’t Sing, which told the true story of “Genie(feral)- The Wild Child,” a girl who was confined to her room from age 10 months to 13 years. During this time she was not exposed to language, sunlight, or solid foods, only baby food. She was strapped to a toilet or bound and kept in a crib. If she made any noise, her father would bark at her like a dog and show his teeth, he even grew out his nails, so he could claw and bark at the door if he heard her make any sound. Genie’s mother was not permitted to see her but would sneak in late at night. The father was violently abusive to both Genie’s mother and older brother, who lived in constant fear of him. To this date, this case represents the single most abusive acts committed on a single child. When discovered, Genie became a ward of the state, and she was used to help understand the development of language and motor skills.
Vampires, serial killers, and things that go bump in the night make me jump and sometimes even laugh. They thrill you and give you a rush, much like riding a rollercoaster; however, An American Crime leaves you crushed, horrified, and feeling dirty, ashamed to be human and terrified of what really might be going on next door. It is a wonderful film in its own right with outstanding acting and production value, but what gets me the most is its ability to utterly massacre your soul and heart slowly and deliberately . . . it won’t let you escape Silvia’s story. Silvia’s cries and laughter are what haunt your dreams along with the image of children, groups of children, torturing another child while an adult not only stands by but encourages and enforces them to do so. Reality, the real world and its multitude of stories, is scary. Where do you think the creators of Saw got all of the torture machine ideas? The Spanish Inquisition! An American Crime is a must see not only for people who enjoy twisted, dark, and scary films, but for society, because I hope Sylvia did not die in vain and we can all learn from her story.