Sundance Reviews: "American Crime" Is Painful, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" Is Haunting

by | January 21, 2007 | Comments

Here are some short reviews of "An American Crime," starring Catherine Keener and Ellen Page, and the Iraq war doc, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," both of which screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Filled with grotesque human cruelty and limited character development, "An American Crime" is a "based on true events" film that never makes the case for its existence. With their parents on the road as carnival workers, sweet, God-fearing Sylvia (Ellen Page) and her sister are taken in as boarders by Gertrude (Catherine Keener), a single mother with a house full of kids and financial woes — not to mention a substance abuse problem. Trouble starts early for the girls — and the film — when they are beaten for a minor infraction (from scene to scene, Gertrude moves from stern-but-caring single parent to Mommie Dearest). Things get worse when the eldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), tells Sylvia in confidence she’s pregnant by a married man; Sophie eventually reveals her secret under duress. Paula tells Gertrude that Sylvia has spread lies about her, and Sophie is locked in the basement and subjected to a series of humiliations and cruelties that are excruciating to witness — not least because the film lingers over them in explicit detail while failing to make the characters’ motivations clear. The makers of "An American Crime" may be trying to make a comment on the nature of torture — that is, good people do nothing if what’s going on seems sanctioned by an authority figure — at a time when detainee rights are being heatedly debated. But any such commentary is undermined by the film itself. At the press screening I attended, several scenes elicited incredulous guffaws, including a pointless trick resolution and an unintentionally ridiculous voiceover in the final scene. The period detail is painstaking, and the actors are clearly committed to the material; it’s just that the material isn’t insightful enough to warrant such devotion.

When pictures of tortured Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib surfaced in 2004, everyone from President Bush to Donald Rumsfeld took great pains to explain that the American soldiers who committed these acts were a few "bad apples." "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" convincingly posits that if anything, it was the barrel that was bad. In "Ghosts," we hear from several of the MPs who were charged in the scandal, and what’s alarming is how normal they all sound; in their voices, there’s a flat, almost shell-shocked tone, as if they can’t believe what they did. They describe the prison as a nightmarish maze of filth, haunted by the lost souls of Saddam’s regime. Once the U.S. took control of Iraq, the prison was reopened to house a number of local criminals and those purported to have information relating to potential terrorist plots. Almost immediately, a number of extreme practices – from sleep deprivation to humiliation – were utilized to extract information from suspects. It’s clear from nearly everyone interviewed in the film that the go-ahead for such drastic measures came from the top, but the irony is that such cruel practices elicited nothing of value for intelligence agents; in addition, many of the incarcerated were guilty of nothing. "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" is not particularly slick filmmaking, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so effective; it makes its points with minimal ceremony, but those points hit hard.

Tag Cloud

MTV quibi parents PaleyFest witnail Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Infographic A24 die hard cats Best and Worst Drama award winner Cartoon Network Peacock a nightmare on elm street video on demand based on movie Nat Geo Britbox green book Musical Disney+ Disney Plus CBS YouTube Premium BET Awards period drama adaptation obituary Family franchise DGA revenge Summer stoner Academy Awards Tomatazos Countdown X-Men latino VH1 BBC Discovery Channel crime Valentine's Day science fiction LGBT Travel Channel space Universal IFC Films LGBTQ Stephen King worst hollywood discovery indiana jones foreign political drama MCU Avengers biography TCA 2017 Creative Arts Emmys Syfy television screenings movies Film films werewolf DC Comics dramedy game of thrones Thanksgiving composers Biopics war BET Star Trek what to watch sports laika FX on Hulu police drama VOD social media Apple TV+ Marvel Television Western Extras superhero supernatural crime thriller Classic Film Sundance Now hist Elton John Holiday mission: impossible boxoffice Video Games zero dark thirty jamie lee curtis Reality blaxploitation WarnerMedia Pop TV 2016 Year in Review First Look 2018 harry potter docudrama Marvel Trivia 20th Century Fox New York Comic Con Comedy Central Lionsgate Holidays universal monsters Black History Month psycho zombie reboot Certified Fresh true crime Disney Plus 2019 Quiz DC streaming service chucky dragons Mudbound See It Skip It OneApp 72 Emmy Awards Funimation breaking bad Kids & Family Cannes Schedule Watching Series crossover Premiere Dates Fantasy strong female leads sag awards game show hispanic reviews Marvel Studios Super Bowl batman 71st Emmy Awards rotten Musicals HBO golden globes Crunchyroll Rocketman diversity HBO Max Binge Guide Endgame MSNBC elevated horror Sci-Fi Apple comic CW Seed Anna Paquin The Purge E3 screen actors guild animated PlayStation crime drama YouTube satire criterion talk show video 21st Century Fox politics medical drama CMT Superheroes Turner FX canceled TV shows Emmy Nominations TNT Paramount Network vampires Box Office Dark Horse Comics dogs GIFs Freeform Writers Guild of America theme song mockumentary Star Wars Disney joker AMC anime Amazon Prime PBS ABC Black Mirror Brie Larson Logo TCM Marathons singing competition Lucasfilm Rock Apple TV Plus SDCC asian-american transformers DC Universe Trophy Talk Netflix Christmas movies Comic Book anthology Hulu Comics on TV cars OWN DirecTV spy thriller FOX documentary Nominations Arrowverse Sundance TV TV renewals Heroines 45 Emmys all-time Rocky binge Vudu technology 2020 CNN robots Tumblr versus YA Oscars doctor who 2017 teaser TCA Winter 2020 HBO Go RT21 A&E Epix TruTV Baby Yoda psychological thriller halloween dceu Sneak Peek Mystery Mary poppins TV Land RT History stand-up comedy Character Guide SXSW Acorn TV Chernobyl Calendar President Paramount Amazon BBC One cults E! USA Network San Diego Comic-Con documentaries spanish language TCA adventure blockbuster Shudder sequels Adult Swim Walt Disney Pictures festivals ghosts unscripted book Amazon Studios The Witch child's play Ellie Kemper Country Pirates ABC Family TLC Pet Sematary series Amazon Prime Video tv talk comedies Animation best nbcuniversal BBC America movie Awards Ovation Hallmark TIFF sitcom Martial Arts kids zombies Crackle Song of Ice and Fire natural history historical drama finale thriller Columbia Pictures Spring TV travel concert The Arrangement FXX cartoon Toys name the review Fall TV Lifetime Christmas movies mutant Television Critics Association children's TV cops Grammys cancelled television Bravo free movies Food Network directors twilight Action casting 24 frames Mindy Kaling Podcast Election nature scary movies spider-man Spike Teen indie Sony Pictures Masterpiece Disney streaming service Photos Red Carpet Mary Tyler Moore Awards Tour The Walking Dead stop motion comiccon miniseries Pop classics fast and furious cancelled TV shows rotten movies we love VICE Christmas Netflix christmas movies streaming Sundance History Shondaland Film Festival The CW Lifetime Esquire NBC APB IFC Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Rom-Com Disney Channel south america Music Pride Month critics SundanceTV ITV emmy awards cancelled Opinion ratings sequel GoT Mary Poppins Returns Ghostbusters National Geographic Spectrum Originals Comedy Warner Bros. American Society of Cinematographers news First Reviews Cosplay TV Set visit renewed TV shows Tarantino independent TCA Awards USA cooking YouTube Red BAFTA facebook TBS Superheroe NYCC Reality Competition ESPN justice league 007 Showtime Winter TV Tubi Starz Television Academy Trailer Turner Classic Movies Hear Us Out GLAAD Nickelodeon CBS All Access romance 4/20 dark Women's History Month richard e. Grant Winners Fox News romantic comedy dc cinemax Pixar canceled 2015 Hallmark Christmas movies spain Captain marvel Interview serial killer cancelled TV series El Rey Horror comics disaster WGN spinoff Polls and Games slashers toy story aliens