The film An American Crime (2007) portrays the horrific abuse of sixteen-year-old Sylvie Likens by her temporary caretaker Gertrude Baniszewski in a small Indiana town circa 1966. Although it dramatizes testimonies from the actual court case reflecting on the events leading up to Sylvie’s torture and murder, the depiction of Sylvie’s anguish, though potent, does not propel the story forward. Instead the film focuses its lens on the middle-aged Gertrude, examining her evolution from an overburdened mother to a monster. Though the 1960s “was a time of deep cultural changes altering the role of women in American society” the primary goal of a mother was to assume the role of caregiver to her children, cultivating an environment of emotional stability and security for the members of her household “amidst the pressures of modern life. Gertrude’s frustration with her deteriorating household and inability to escape the unfortunate circumstances of poverty and single-motherhood in her homebound life are evident in the film’s mise-en-scene and manifest themselves in her megalomania which ultimately leads to the captivity and degradation of a helpless girl.
The confining atmosphere surrounding Gertrude throughout An American Crime illustrates her imprisonment within her role as a single mother and within the physical manifestation of the home sphere. In the midst of a chaotic and shallow living space—children running around, bills scattered next to bottles of pills and alcohol—Gertrude tirelessly irons in the corner of the room denoting an unstable home life as well as a constant struggle of working without the regular support of an archetypal male breadwinner. Whether she is managing her seven children, supporting her twenty-something-year old ex-lover, Andy, or doing menial housework to make a living, Gertrude rarely occupies the outside world, signifying the ways in which her daily routine binds her to the house. Even when outside the house, Gertrude’s presence often seems crowded by the multitude of children who tend to occupy more physical space in the composition than she does in several shots. Andy also serves as a contrast to Gertrude’s limited lifestyle as he seems able to traverse between home life and the freedoms of the outside world; though he may on rare occasion visit Gertrude’s world, his visits are brief, destructive, and lacking the responsibility indicative of an ideal father figure.
The tight framing of Gertrude’s close-up shots and the way in which her clothing blends in with the peeling wallpaper and dingy furniture further emphasizes her inseparable connection to her house, which has become central to her identity. A high-angle long shot in which Gertrude lies crying on the couch, partially consumed by darkness and dwarfed by the furnishings in her home, reveals the hopelessness of her situation. In essence, Gertrude has few options and her life does not belong to her; instead she belongs to her household, for which she sacrifices everything to keep her tentative home life from ruin. Though the house may be Gertrude’s prison, it is also the realm in which she can maintain an illusion of order and control.
The ambiance inside the Baniszewski house darkens as Gertrude's fears of inadequacy and helplessness reach a peak. Gertrude’s monstrous transition becomes apparent as her face is increasingly obscured by the deep shadows and she transforms into a tyrannical, dark force. Only after she percieves Sylvie to be a threat to her dysfunctional family and most importantly to her facade of control, does Gertrude makes it her mission to subdue Sylvie's agency.In a scene moments before she intensifies her abuse of Sylvie, Gertrude looms above her in a two-shot and asks her children “Who’s in charge?”—a rhetorical question meant to affirm her dominance. Gertrude is no longer the picture of frailty and despair, but rather the judge and jury of her household. The children prove their acquiescence to Gertrude's sovereignity in a reverse shot, with their undivided attention, staring unblinkingly at their mother. Whereas Gertrude limits the mobility of her children using verbal commands and intimidation, she treats Sylvie as little more than an object, pushing and pulling her about the house. By contrast Gertrude’s mobility increases as a previously static camera follows her about in a more loosely framed tracking shot, indicating that she draws strength from Sylvie's oppression and the children’s submission.
When Sylvie is tied up and confined to a dark room, where she endures a long process of dehumanization--literally becoming a fixture of the house--she loses posession of her life in the same way that Gertrude has. With every mark of Gertrude's discipline Sylvie's body becomes the canvas of Gertrude's shame and failings as a mother. Ironically, the violent and oppresive means by which Gertrude “[keeps] her family together” and “holding [their] heads high,” secretly shames and pervert her household with monstrosity unbefitting the ideal structure of family life.