The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door

 

(John’s House-May 30, 2010)

 

Jack Ketchum and company walk an oddly perverse line. What makes this picture stomach churning and effective is the knowledge that its inspiration is true events (in my opinion what happened in that 60’s Indiana of reality is far more disturbing than any events portrayed in this film’s 50’s New Jersey). Would the audience cringe as intensely and be as introspective over the closing credits if this were just another brainchild of that “auteur” Eli Roth?

That “The Girl Next Door” is a piece of intense gruesomeness is of no debate. It is surely seat squirming and offensive. But to what end, and at what cost? The film’s direction, screenwriting and (for the most part) acting are pedestrian to the point of being a Lifetime movie with money shots. Is this an examination of small town America? Is it dissecting the hold parents have over youths or the inherent evil of children? Is it anything but some sort of geek show?

For those unfamiliar, “The Girl Next Door” traces the torture of a young girl at the hands of a woman, her sons, and several neighborhood children. Most of the children, at the request and cheerleading of the woman (Aunt Ruth), participate in the carnage. One boy, perhaps the most helplessly inadequate hero ever even dreamed about, doesn’t participate, but watches, and does nearly nothing to help.

Two key scenes suggest there should be more to be had here. The first scene is a prologue, with an adult version of our stunted hero. At first sight, it seems rather tacked on, and an excuse to have William Atherton in a cast that is otherwise unrecognizable. Looking back on it, it plays like a failed attempt to show the humanity placed in the heart of a kid who once had such little strength. If you’ve seen the film, and dare to revisit it, the first few minutes actually do resonate more.

The second key scene is where the child discusses hitting a girl with his father (there is another scene where the boy talks to his sleeping mom, but that is beyond stupid). This scene might have allowed the viewer access into the thoughts of these children that allowed, and even participated in Aunt Ruth’s carnage, but it rings completely false (“Twin Peaks” plays like a docudrama next to this). Aside from being false, the father appears marvelously stupid, as if the screenwriter had no true concept of 50’s mentality and masculinity.

Where the film does have some effect is in the character of Aunt Ruth. She is horribly twisted, and a visibly wounded creature. She is often contradictory and appears to have equal hate towards men and the fact that she is a woman. It is a haunting portrayal of a demented psyche. (Aside from this, the only decent performance is the tortured girl—though it’d be hard to do anything but side with her).

Back to the original question, what propels this movie is the notion of “How could people do this?” This film offers no reasons, motivations, or even believable actions. The audience buys into it simply because we know it DID actually happen. One might even argue that’s unfair to those it happened to: they are fuel for the inadequate fire the filmmakers ignite.

Overall, that is the film’s true punch. “Antichrist,” a patently fictional film is much more menacing and intense. Von Trier knows how to bring his audience in close and you can’t help but leave shaken…even as you know Willem Dafoe will next be fighting vampires. But he works for the effect. The filmmakers don’t do the work here, but rather the poor, poor youth in a 1960’s Indiana town did it for them long ago. And that may be the sickest feat of all in this film.

There is another film, supposedly based closer to the truth of this torture called “An American Crime” and featuring Catherine Keener. It is said to be “tamer.” Hopefully it is more effective.

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