Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

'An American Crime'

"An American Crime" movie poster

An American Crime, a motion picture based on the Sylvia Likens case, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2007 and is scheduled for general release in August 2007.

The director of An American Crime, Tommy O'Haver, wanted actress Catherine Keener to play Gertrude Baniszewski because he had been as impressed by her performance as author Harper Lee in Capote as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which nominated it for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in 2006. "I thought her performance was underplayed," O'Haver said. "That was the sort of sensibility I wanted for the film."

Director Tommy O'Haver
Director Tommy O'Haver

O'Haver knew that the facts of the Likens case are horrifying and told an interviewer for the New York Times that he did not want his film to sensationalize its inevitably shocking material. "It would have been easy to take this story over the top," he observed. "So I purposely pulled back. My mantra was 'restraint, restraint, restraint.'"

Keener was apprehensive about playing the abusive Gertrude. She describes her misgivings and ultimate decision: "As a mother I said to myself, 'I can't do this.' Later I thought: 'I'm a mother. I kind of should.'"

Actress Catherine Keener plays Gertrude Baniszewski
Actress Catherine Keener plays
Gertrude Baniszewski

When O'Haver and Keener met to discuss the film, Keener said, "I'm really scared to do something like this." O'Haver replied, "I have to tell you, I'm scared too. In some ways I think that's why we have to do it."

O'Haver had been fascinated by the Likens killing since he first read about it 19 years after the fact when Gertrude Baniszewski came up for parole. Then a high school student living in an Indianapolis suburb, O'Haver had just read Lord of the Flies and saw a parallel between that novel and the real-life crime. When asked what haunted him about this case, he answered, "The Lord of the Flies aspect, the mob mentality, was so unusual. The fact that Sylvia is sort of an iconic victim of abuse. It has haunted so many people for one reason or another and it's difficult to explain why but I thought her story needed to be told."

O'Haver joined with colleague Irene Turner to thoroughly research the Likens case. The pair pored over the court transcripts of the trials and filled three notebooks with information before co-writing the screenplay.

To make the film, O'Haver says that he and Turner tried to answer the questions, "Why" and "What kind of people would do this?"

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'