Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

Iconic Victim of Abuse

O'Haver describes An American Crime as "an interpretation of the facts. It really is a fictionalized version in some ways. We try to hit all the major points in the trial as to the stories revealed. Then we created an interpretation as to how this could have happened based on that. A lot of it has to do with Gertrude's character and trying to explain how someone who was a human being and not necessarily evil to begin with could tip over the edge and commit such a heinous act."

Actress Ellen Page plays Sylvia
Actress Ellen Page plays Sylvia

Canadian actress Ellen Page plays Sylvia. Reading the script profoundly affected Page. "I was just blown away and could hardly believe it was a true story," she commented. "I remember literally just going on the computer and staying up all night and reading everything I could. It just, like, splintered my heart."

Not everyone is happy that An American Crime has been filmed. Sylvia's older sister Diana, now Dianna Bedwell-Knutson, said, "No one ever even asked us about it. It's their gain, our pain."

Jennifer Morrow reviewed An American Crime for Fangoria.com. She describes it as "unrelentingly bleak. That particular adjective has lost a lot of its meaning in recent years, after being indiscriminately applied to everything from hardcore gorefests to perfectly straightforward flicks which merely lack a happy ending. On the other hand, it's hard to think of a better way to describe a movie which opens grimly, ends desolately and maintains a steadily increasing sense of dread in between."

Morrow praises Ellen Page for performing "admirably" and writes that Page's "hint of defiance under Sylvia's wide-eyed surface" helps make Sylvia "a living, breathing girl, not some cardboard angel." This reviewer describes Keener as "utterly compelling as Gertrude. She slips from sainted compassion one moment to absolute cruelty the next." Morrow continues that Ari Graynor, who plays Paula Baniszewski, "is a particular standout" who has "a full-lipped, sullen sensuality (and a sadistic streak to match) which instantly codes her as adversary to the reserved Sylvia."

Morrow criticizes some aspects of the movie, citing "a number of missteps" and finding that one late scene is "a baffling mess." She also notes that "true-crime purists" may dislike that way some of the abuses inflicted on Sylvia are either only hinted at or completely left out. However, she concludes, "What An American Crime lacks in blood, it makes up for in gripping psychological anguish as the audience must watch as a happy teen who engages in pillow fights upstairs suddenly morphs into a humiliated girl undergoing twisted punishments in the living room, and finally into the quivering creature tied up in the basement."

Writing for Variety.com, reviewer Todd McCarthy has a less flattering opinion of An American Crime. McCarthy writes, "Tommy O'Haver brings no depth or insight to his account of a horrific true-life 1965 murder case." McCarthy continues that O'Haver "seems clueless as to how to make something palatable and illuminating of the twisted psychology and pathological behavior at the heart of this tragic tale."

McCarthy is unimpressed by the performances of Keener and Page that he finds have "a rote, under-rehearsed feel that never convinces." He believes Keener's Gertrude lacks the "steely, insidious power" that the real one must have possessed to "keep the kids in her grasp." He thinks Page makes an uninteresting "passive victim."

The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum
The Girl Next Door, by
Jack Ketchum

An American Crime will not be the last movie inspired by the case to be released in 2007. The Girl Next Door, a movie based on Jack Ketchum's novel of the same name, was directed by Gregory Wilson (Home Invaders) and is now in post-production. The Girl Next Door will have its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring. Jennifer Morrow writes, "It remains to be seen which of the two diverse takes will be the better film, but considering how well-made An American Crime is, The Girl Next Door certainly has a hard act to follow."

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