I didn't think after watching The Passion of the Christ (2004) that I could have bore witness to another human torture scenario as visceral and at the same time heartbreaking. This is not to put it in the same league as Jesus' crucifixtion, although the moral and religious connotations are there. I wouldn't even want to draw comparisons to recent horror films like Saw (2004), which many regard as torture porn, titilation for one's sadomasochistic fantasies.
This is a docudrama based on the real-life case of Baniszewski v. The State of Indiana in 1966. The shock of this film is discovering what the actual crime is: a woman locked a teenage girl in her basement and systematically caused her to be abused, essentially tortured for months.
Oscar-nominated actress Catherine Keener (Capote and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) stars as Gertrue Baniszewski, a single mother of seven children, six teenaged and one infant. It's not said if there are seven fathers to go along, but at least one fathe pops in every now and then, except he's only about a few years older than Gertrude's eldest daughter.
Gertrude is weathered and worn out. She's on medication. Her ailments could be any number of mental illnesses, most notably depression. Being a single mom of so many kids, she struggles for money. This isn't the "Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio." Gertrude is frustrated, tired, bitter, and barely hanging on by the thinnest of threads.
James Franco (James Dean and Spider-Man) plays Andy, Gertrude's young boyfriend, and father to her infant, though he's seemingly barely out of diapers himself. He's rough, crude, and certainly from the wrong side of the tracks. He does have a sexy charm, but ultimately he's another drain on Gertrude.
Gertrude does have feelings for him. Even when his presence there is only to drain her, she allows it. Right or wrong, he's the father of her baby, meaning he's family, so she doesn't take the aggression that he deserves out on him. She instead suppresses and lets him crawl and slither all over her, even smack her around a bit.
Gertrude's daughters meet two girls named Sylvia and Jenny Likens at church one day. Gertrude's daughters invite them over to play at Gertrude's house. When Lester Likens, the manager of a traveling carnival, comes to pick his girls, Gertrude offers to keep the girls while Lester and his wife Betty focus on the carnival, Lester agrees. Gertrude would geta weekly check from Lester in return.
Ellen Page (Juno and X-Men 3) plays Sylvia Likens, the eldest girl of parents Lester and Betty Likens. She is a sweet, innocent girl who absolutely respects Gertrude and does everything she's told. Sylvia goes to church and says her prayers. Yes, she's a normal teenage girl who's interested in boys, but she's not wanton. She's respectful and she even sticks up for Gertrude's daughters, defending and protecting them, even when they don't deserve it.
Sylvia has no idea that should then become the perfect victim for Gertrude's mania. You see, Gertrude doesn't want to unleash her aggression, her frustration and bitterness on any in her own family, but Sylvia isn't her blood nor kin, so she can unleash on her. All she needs is a trigger to justify it.
That trigger is provided by Paula's eldest daughter, Paula. Paula has been secretly having sex with a married man, a married boy really, named Bradley, played by Brian Geraghty. When Paula gets pregnant by Bradley, a reality lived by Gertrude that she never wanted visited upon her daughter, Paula has to cover it up. The rumor mill starts to spread, however.
When Gertrude hears of this, the trigger is pulled and the abuse and torture begins. First it begins as a spanking. Gertrude escalates it into things that are much worse. Gertrude justifies it with the notion she's just punishing a bad girl.
Bradley Whitford (The West Wing and Studio 60) plays Prosecutor Leroy K. New. While the abuse and torture are occurring, openly gay, writer-director Tommy O'Haver (Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss and Ella Enchanted) jumps us forward a year to Gertrude's trial where Prosecutor New points out the contradictions and the lies Gertrude tells to others and to herself.
One has to stop and wonder how could a sweet, innocent girl like Sylvia be systematically abused and tortured to the point where the whole neighborhood knew. Blood-curling screams by Sylvia could be heard by neighbors. People, including the town's revered, know Sylvia had disappeared, and all the kids in the community came over to Gertrude's house either to watch or participate in the torture, which Gertrude allowed and to which was completely compliant.
One has to stop and wonder how something that could be an American crime. How could something like that happen in America? On the witness stand, what's most damning is the testimony of the children, which, at one point, O'Haver montages butted by questions from Prosecutor New. Each answer is more chilling and disheartening by the next, as they puzzle piece the torture that happened to this girl.
All of the children and young actors in this film give excellent performances. Of particular attention is Ellen Page who has to be like the other Baniszewski children who have only small, thin sandwiches for dinner, and possibly only meals, who work but give everything to momma to pay bills, who never talk back, or complain, and basically just do what they're told. Page has to then bear the brunt and endure this pain, while also harboring a strength and courage that absorbs this to protect her family.
A special note also goes out to Scott Eastwood who has a small role in this film. Scott Eastwood is the fourth child and youngest son of Clint Eastwood. Scott Eastwood is only 21-years-old. He first appeared in his father's film Flags of Our Fathers (2006). This is Eastwood's first film outside of his dad's umbrella. He is sometimes credited as Scott Reeves. He reminds me of Jonathan Tucker (The Ruins and The Deep End).
This film premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. It was broadcast exclusively on Showtime back in May. It was made available on DVD in August.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for child abuse and torture
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.