Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Catherine Keener, suburban torture mom

Illustration for article titled Catherine Keener, suburban torture mom

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The recent Foxcatcher has us thinking back on other stranger-than-fiction true crime yarns.


An American Crime (2007)
An American Crime is one of many cultural curios—among them books by Jack Ketchum and Kate Millett—inspired by the torture and murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens in 1965. Why has fascination with this crime endured? Though the gruesome details certainly help, the real interest probably lies in the circumstances of Likens’ death, and the basic questions about human decency and culpability they raise.

The parents of Sylvia and Jenny Likens left them with Gertrude Baniszewski while working at a traveling carnival, paying the ailing, unstable mother of six a cool $20 a week for her services. From there, accounts vary as to why Gertrude tortured and murdered Sylvia, with help from the guardian’s children and neighborhood teens.

In co-writer and director Tommy O’Haver’s 2007 film, there are hints that Gertrude (Catherine Keener) had already shown a sadistic side to her own children before Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jenny (Hayley McFarland) are dropped on her doorstep. The cough syrup she downs for her asthma can’t help, and neither can the stress of keeping up a household of eight on meager earnings. Still, it’s difficult to go from being a stressed out, broke, and possibly mentally ill mom with too many kids and a crappy boyfriend (played by James Franco, of all people) to forcing a teenage girl to insert a Coca-Cola bottle in herself while people watch. The gradual ostracism and increasing violence that Gertrude systematically enforces dehumanizes Sylvia piece by piece, until a young crowd is gathering in the Baniszewski’s basement after school to discover new and creative ways to torture her.

The mundanity of it all is probably the most horrifying aspect of Likens’ murder. It’s like that anti-drug PSA from the ’80s where the kid tells his dad, “I learned it by watching you!” or the old saw about jumping off a bridge because your friends are doing it. Gertrude said it was necessary, that it was justifiable to hurt Sylvia; she showed the kids how to do it and then passed them the tools they needed. It’s the Reich next door, right under their neighbors’ suburban Indiana noses.

The film’s pedigree speaks to the warped curiosity its subject matter still provokes. O’Haver directed teen rom-coms Get Over It and Ella Enchanted before getting serious with An American Crime, and the ensemble cast includes enough recognizable faces and names that it feels like a weird indie/TV time capsule. (Nick Searcy, Ari Graynor, Evan Peters, Bradley Whitford, Michael O’Keefe, and a young Scout Taylor-Compton share the screen with Franco, Page, and Keener.) In the end, it might be seriousness of intent that undermines An American Crime a little. It’s not that it should have been more graphic—it’s much more effective in this case to let the violence happen just offscreen, with the camera’s focus on the faces of Page and Keener. But maybe the filmmakers should have all been a little less invested in offering the milk of human kindness to Gertrude and her ilk.

Availability: An American Crime is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.