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.