If you loved Juno, maybe you should skip An American Crime. What happens to Ellen Page as Sylvia Likens in this Showtime gothic shouldn’t happen to our worst enemy, much less to the sweetie-pie heroine of Juno, whom most of us wanted to adopt. At the beginning and then again at the end of An American Crime, we see Page with her pert nose and trademark bangs on a merry-go-round at a cheesy circus. This, of course, is symbolic. But between the creepy carousels, An American Crime is entirely literal. In a white house in suburban Indianapolis, 16-year-old Sylvia is tortured to death—tied to a pole, chained like a dog, thrown down stairs, beaten and branded and blistered with burning cigarettes. And we watch it from our lordly zeppelin, in intimate focus and broad scan, as though it were the nightly intravenous newsfeed from Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, or Abu Ghraib.
There really was a Sylvia, left with her younger sister by their carnival-worker parents in a stranger’s care, for $20 a week. And she really was tortured to death in Indianapolis in 1965 by her caretaker, Gertrude Baniszewski, a 37-year-old single mother with seven children of her own, some of whom, abetted by schoolmates, helped blister and brand in the basement, as if they’d all enrolled in one of Stanley Milgram’s sadistic experiments. Writer-director Tommy O’Haver, who grew up in Indianapolis, has piled on the signifiers and the watermarks of class, war, and religion—the crucifix on the wall and Vietnam on the TV news; church socials, pop music, and pickup trucks; saying grace before supper and counting on next-door neighbors’ being so busy minding their own business they won’t hear the screams. But not even at Gertrude’s murder trial could anyone explain her behavior. Financial desperation was no excuse, nor smoking her way to bronchitis, nor dextromethorphan in the cough syrup.
We’re left to intuit something from Gertrude’s face. That face here is Catherine Keener’s, not quite the one that Keener wore to Being John Malkovich, nor her Harper Lee in Capote, but, as always, remarkable, with sonar eyes and blue-blood bones, shadowed by dark thought. And shadowed here as well by fatigue, as if she had smoked herself down to a stub. When she watches Sylvia among the boys, including a youthful James Franco as the cash-cadging father of Gertrude’s most recent baby, she’s jealous not so much of Sylvia as of the girl Gertrude once was, the body bygone, a feckless allure. She will punish every pleasure in the world; the lesson is that nobody gets away with anything. And compared with Keener’s Gertrude, the clergyman (Michael O’Keefe) and the prosecutor (Bradley Whitford) are naïfs.
Or so I imagine. An American Crime, wonderfully mounted, wholly absorbing, is also full of blank uneasiness. It doesn’t know what it wants to mean. Stuck with courtroom transcripts and real-life facts, it seems to be asking the rest of us, spectators and bystanders, to rush into its void with gassy meanings. But isn’t this what fiction’s for? I remember having similar misgivings eight years ago about Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, the Lawrence Schiller mini-series devoted to the JonBenet Ramsey murder mystery. After spider webs, stun guns, duct-tape fibers in the wine cellar, ghostly voices on the 911 tape recording, pineapple residue in the small intestine, and a 6-year-old still wetting her bed, who were we supposed to blame? Late next month, Joyce Carol Oates will publish her 37th novel, My Sister, My Love, in which she reimagines the JonBenet case in New Jersey instead of Colorado, involving an ice-skating champion rather than a beauty queen. And Oates’s imaginary version is so much more richly rewarding than what we know about what really happened that it ought to be true, and probably is.