American Crime is the stylized sophomore effort from director Dan Mintz and writers Jack Moore and Jeff Ritchie.
Even though the basic premise might sound a little too familiar when stripped down to a TV Guide-friendly blurb -- a killer with a distinctive M.O., an investigation follows, internal squabbling, climactic showdown...you know the drill -- American Crime isn't the sort of thriller that sticks unwaveringly to genre convention. Ignore that thirteen word quasi-synopsis in favor of something that's hopefully a little less misleading. American Crime revolves around a few employees from the modest news division of a small local TV station: reporter Jesse St. Claire (Rachael Leigh Cook), producer Jane Berger (Annabella Sciorra), and intern-slash-budding documentarian Rob Latrobe (Kip Pardue). Jesse and Jane made a name for themselves doing women-centric human interest stories for the evening news, and the movie opens with them stumbling upon (and that's putting it lightly) the bloated corpse of a stripper from one of their pieces. The local sheriff isn't particularly interested in those people, especially when the cause of death seems fairly mundane. Even the discovery of a video tape showing a stalker trailing and apparently butchering her on-camera isn't enough to get an official investigation going.
Naturally, Jesse, Kip, and an entirely disinterested Jane begin their own unofficial investigation. A trend quickly emerges -- more tapes, more girls, more bodies. Even though they still can't turn up enough evidence to convince the sheriff...nothing they're willing to turn over, at least...their search does attract the attention of the killer, who directs his Hi-8 hijinks in their general direction. Bucking genre convention, one of 'em does the smart thing and skips town, and the other two continue their investigation but not exactly with the backing of the station's news department. Enter Albert Bodine! Actually, Albert enters earlier, but that's not important. Albert (Cary Elwes) boasts that he's the host of "American Crime", a true crime series that's one of Britain's most successful syndicated TV shows, and he's fascinated enough with the investigation to devote an entire episode to the case. He teams up with Kip and Jane (or maybe it's the other way around), and the closer they get to uncovering the murderer's identity, the closer they come to making the local news themselves as his latest victims.
American Crime straddles a bunch of different lines, and if Dan Mintz and company had gone too far in either direction in any of those cases, the movie would probably be an unwatchable mess. It's very much to the filmmakers' credit that it's not, although I think it's a good bet that the reasons I like American Crime so much would be the same reasons many viewers might use to bash it. Some films make use of an unreliable narrator, but American Crime has unreliable everything. The movie gives cause to wonder how trustworthy any of of the four main characters are (hell, several of 'em work at a station with "CON" in the call letters), and in any given scene, a bunch of questions would leap to mind. Is it a flashback? Is it a re-enactment for Albert's TV show? A daydream reaction to a story someone read? Is it happening in real-time, or is this archival footage? Does the transition from a more deliberately composed, cinematic shot to a shaky close-up of random parts of Annabella Sciorra's face mean that there's some other wannabe-documentarian taping the whole thing? Did what I'm seeing now ever happen at all? American Crime doesn't really clarify. Even the ending is somewhat ambiguous. In less capable hands, this would probably have wound up hopelessly confusing . In American Crime, there's just a lingering sense of questioning the validity of what you're watching. It seems very deliberate and makes the mystery a lot more compelling than it would've been with linear, straightforward plotting.
Then there's Cary Elwes. American Crime is a well-cast movie to begin with, but Cary Elwes is by far the best part about it. With his burst capillaries and an accent that sounds like he should be coaching Ronnie Dobbs,
Elwes is unrecognizable as the doughy, drunken Albert Bodine. The character is shamelessly over-the-top, yanking off fist-sized pieces of the scenery and chewing on it at every possible opportunity. Albert's decided that shooting with a large crew takes away intimacy and trust during an interview, so he tows around an ancient camera and tries in vain to aim it at himself. His show is peppered with ridiculously elaborate transitions that seem more like self-indulgence than a realistic attempt at duplicating some true crime show narrated by Bill Kurtis. The frustrated banter between Kip and Albert had me laughing a lot more often than I do at movies expressly labeled as comedies, let alone something more readily described as a thriller. Words like "self-indulgent" and "over-the-top" might sound like criticism, but they're just a description. Really, and as ridiculous as some of it may seem, it fits in perfectly well with some of what's revealed later in the movie. Again, that interplay between thrills and humor seems like it'd be destined for disaster, but American Crime pulls it off and pulls it off well.
And yeah, American Crime is a thriller, or at least it's as much a thriller as it is anything else. Although the more dramatic of those scenes can be hit or miss (I'm probably too jaded for anything to always "hit" with me, though), there are a couple that are damn effective. The filmmakers seem to alternate between thumbing their nose at convention and embracing it; the movie doesn't bog itself down by lobbing red herrings at the screen, and characters have reactions that actually seem believeable, even if they don't entirely fit the genre formula. On the other hand, the stalk-and-slash climax, following a "hey, let's go inside this rickety, apparently abandoned house in the middle of nowhere!" decision from our heroes, doesn't strike me as particularly original. I get the impression that was the point, though -- there's a lot more under the hood, in terms of both concept and execution, than your average thriller. Whether or not that's a good thing is up for debate. As someone with a borderline obsession with true-crime shows and a tendency to gravitate towards movies with an off-kilter perspective, I liked American Crime quite a bit. It's far enough out there for me to more enthusiastically recommend this DVD as a rental than a purchase, but American Crime is a movie worth keeping in mind the next time you're at the video store.
Video: American Crime was shot on digital video, and the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image on this DVD is from a direct digital transfer, bypassing the sorts of flaws that can creep in when transferring from film.
The image has a noisy, rougher-hewn appearance in its opening moments and in some of the more dimly-lit sequences, but the rest of the movie is sharp and clean. Everything looks about as great as can reasonably be expected, from the level of detail to the occasionally vivid colors that pop up. It almost takes a concerted effort to talk about American Crime and not rattle off a word like "stylized", and that sort of visual flair carries over really well to DVD.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (448Kbps) is pretty straightforward. Since a big chunk of the movie is shot as a sorta-documentary, most of the activity is predictably anchored up front, with the rears mostly used for light ambiance and reinforcing various bits of music. Fine, overall -- nothing that really warrants paragraphs of rambling jargon. The DVD is closed captioned and includes a 2.0 surround track.
Supplements: Nothing. Nothing related to the movie itself, at least -- just a trailer gallery with plugs for The Final Cut, Cube Zero, and Saw. American Crime comes packaged in a keepcase with no insert, and the DVD sports a set of animated 16x9 menus and eighteen chapter stops.
Conclusion: American Crime stands out among the rest of the dreck shelved alongside it at the 'Thriller' section at Blockbuster. That's not just because the title begins with an "A" and wins out alphabetically, but because it plays with convention and takes some chances. American Crime is different enough from the average thriller that some viewers may have a hard time getting into it, and because of that (not to mention the total lack of extras and $25 sticker price), this DVD is probably best suited for a rental. Recommended anyway.