Monday, May 25, 2009

an american crime...

A while back, I wrote about THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, an effective horror film based on the true 1960s story of an Indiana teenager who was held captive, tortured and killed by the family her parents were boarding her with. From a book by Jack Ketchum, whom I don't think I'm especially wild about, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR left me very uneasy at the time. It's definitely a good movie, but not really a pleasurable experience to watch, not that a film has to be fun to be good (negative pleasure, duh), but it's kind of hard to sort out your feelings on something that's powerful and brutal, particularly revolving around violence against children. It's been over a year since I watched it, and the film has definitely stuck with me. It got under my skin.

It's probably because GIRL NEXT DOOR got under my skin that I've been both very interested and somewhat hesitant in watching AN AMERICAN CRIME, a direct-to-cable version of the same story which also came out in 2007. On the one hand, I was curious to see a different interpretation of the same events, and the other hand, they weren't events I was especially anxious to revisit. Anyway, whether it's good that I waited or not is kind of irrelevant, just personal shit, or whatever. AN AMERICAN CRIME, it turns out, is a good film, very similar to THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, very effective and disturbing, and (judging from my nominal research) more historically accurate.

The crux of the difference between AN AMERICAN CRIME and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is the aura of legitimacy. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has been promoted as a horror film, it could be taken a torture porn, I guess depending on what a viewer's reaction is to it. I mean, I don't think the torture in that film was meant to be titillating, but in some ways that's what the marketing skew on the movie seems like, but whatever. AN AMERICAN CRIME has a more polished pedigree. Director Tommy O'Haver is definitely not an exlpoitation filmmaker (his credits include ELLA ENCHANTED and BILLY'S HOLLYWOOD SCREEN KISS, which was co-written with his co-writer on this film, Irene Turner). Christine Vachon is one of the producers. The cast is full of familiar faces, the victim is played by Ellen Page of JUNO and HARD CANDY, her abuser is Catherine Keener (I was also kind of surprised and amused to see Michael O'Keefe, the kid from CADDYSHACK, as a priest), and the neighborhood kids who take part in the abuse are made up of familiar faces from TV shows and movies (nobody super famous, but all very recognizable). James Franco also has a bit part, as does Bradley Whitford. So, yeah, the vibe here is very different than THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.

In a way, this almost makes AN AMERICAN CRIME the more effective film. Though the level of onscreen violence and torture is definitely less here than in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, some of the most brutal moments remain, and must of the rest is implied. As in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, the horror kind of sneaks up on you. Unlike GIRL NEXT DOOR, AN AMERICAN CRIME doesn't frame the story in any kind of romantic or nostalgic idyll. Here, however, the viewer is lulled into a sense of security by the legitimacy of the trappings. It's a Showtime movie, Catherine Keener, Ellen Page, how bad can things get? But of course, they do get bad, the violence is presented with a certain starkness and it's all the more effective because as a viewer I'm not really used to see Catherine Keener torturing children (she's good here though, as is Page, an actress I really like who mostly stars in movies that I don't like, this is only the second film after HARD CANDY I've seen her in that I thought was decent).

So yeah, AN AMERICAN CRIME was a good film. It tries a little too hard to make the violence of the story more palatable to a mainstream audience, and that sort of works for and against it. The violence isn't any more palatable, and might in fact be more troubling because the movie around it aims at legitimacy. At the same time, the more familiar narrative aspects of the film serve somewhat to weaken it. The music, for example, doesn't really seem right, it's sort of stock dreamy 1960s coming-of-age movie music, which this really isn't. It's still a pretty engaging, troubling movie experience and one that's well worth your time.

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