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An American Crime

4.2 out of 5 stars 221 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

"This," said Prosecutor Leroy New, "has been the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana;" the first crime of child abuse that broke through reticence and denial to register with the public. In Tommy O'Haver's heartbreaking and hard-hitting film, AN AMERICAN CRIME, Academy Award ® nominee Catherine Keener portrays Gertrude Baniszewski, the seemingly ordinary housewife who imprisons and tortures a beautiful teenager, played by Academy Award ® nominee Ellen Page, in the basement of her house - two portrayals that will resonate with audiences long after they leave the theatre. AN AMERICAN CRIME also stars James Franco and Bradley Whitford.

An extended sleepover turns tragic for two sisters in this fact-based tele-film. After their carnival worker parents separate, Sylvia (Juno's Ellen Page) and Jennie Fae Likens (Hayley McFarland) move in with Gertrude "Gertie" Baniszewski (Emmy nominee Catherine Keener), a divorced Indianapolis mother with seven children (six in the screenplay). The kids get along, so the Likens figure Gertie will offer a safe haven until they return. Little do they realize she has a substance-abuse problem, a history of mental illness, and a layabout lover (James Franco). Even with the money the Likens send and the washing she takes in, Gertie can't make ends meet, so she takes her frustration out on her boarders. Since Jennie has polio, Sylvia bears the brunt of her anger: beatings, cigarette burns, and worse. Then when Sylvia tries to protect Paula (Nick and Norah's Ari Graynor) from an abusive boyfriend, Paula turns against her, too (Sylvia tells him about Paula's pregnancy). Like dominoes, the rest of the extended family falls in line. Three months later, their torture culminates in murder. Throughout, the narrative alternates between 1965 and the ensuing court case, in which prosecutor Leroy K. New (The West Wing's Bradley Whitford) cross-examines witnesses and defendants, whose testimony comes from the original transcripts. If An American Crime, which aired on Showtime, makes for difficult viewing, former Indianapolis resident Tommy O'Haver (Ella Enchanted) renders a salacious story as tactfully as possible, and his cast is always convincing--painfully so in the case of Ms. Keener. --Kathleen C. Fennessy

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Ellen Page, Hayley McFarland, Catherine Keener, Michael O'Keefe, Ari Graynor
  • Directors: Tommy O'Haver
  • Format: Multiple Formats, AC-3, Color, Dolby, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: Spanish
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
  • DVD Release Date: August 19, 2008
  • Run Time: 92 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (221 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00177YA6U
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,439 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "An American Crime" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
In the summer of 1965, two young girls, Sylvia Likens, age 16 and her little sister Jennie, crippled with polio, were left by their itinerant parents in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a divorced mother of seven, in a blue-collar neighborhood in Indiana, who agreed to care for them for $20 a week while their parents traveled the carnival circuit. Three months later, Sylvia was dead, and Gertrude Baniszewski was standing trial for first-degree murder, accused of having engineered Sylvia's death by torture.

The film, "An American Crime", shown on the Showtime cable channel, follows Sylvia's last three months fairly closely. Gertrude Baniszewski, who may or may not have been playing with a full deck to begin with, progressed from slaps and spankings when the support checks arrived late, to more grotesque punishments after Sylvia "lied" about Baniszewski's oldest daughter Paula being pregnant (Paula actually was pregnant by a married man), culminating in Sylvia being locked in the basement and systematically tortured not only by Gertrude Baniszewksi and six of her seven children (the baby was too young to participate), but also by several neighborhood children who stopped by from time to time after school to join in the fun. Even worse, Gertrude forced Jennie Likens to take part in abusing her sister, threatening to do the same thing to her if she didn't. By the time Sylvia mercifully died of shock and abuse, there was hardly a square inch on her body that had not been cut, scalded, beaten, burned with cigarettes, or subjected to whatever torments the Baniszewskis could dream up, including scratching the words onto her abdomen with red-hot needles in letters two inches high "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT".
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Format: DVD
When I reviewed The Girl Next Door, which is also based on the case of Sylvia Likens, I could hardly put my thoughts into words. I sat in front of my computer screen for hours knowing that I needed to write something, but unable to find the words, which is somewhat frustrating for a writer. No such problem exists with this film, An American Crime.

An American Crime is more true to the actual events then The Girl Next Door, although it skips over a lot of the abuse and doesn't really give a clear picture of what this young girl was forced to endure during those few months in late 1965. Sylvia Likens, fondly nicknamed "Cookie" by her father, and her sister Jenny were two bright, energetic, and endearing teenagers. When their parents decide to go on the road with a carnival they are left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother with seven children who is constantly sick and battling with depression.

The real life story of Sylvia is one that will forever haunt me. When police found her body on October 26, she had been burned with cigarettes and matches over a hundred times, beaten on a daily basis by a host of neighborhood kids from 11 to 18 years of age, starved, forced to eat her own feces, and a host of other atrocities that I cannot repeat here. But by far the worst torment she endured was a brand across her chest made with a hot piece of metal that said "I am a prostitute and proud of it." Sylvia, only sixteen at the time of these tortures, was killed in one of the most horrendous fashions imaginable.

So, which film, An American Crime or The Girl Next Door, is truly the better film?

When it comes to staying true to the original story An American Crime comes out on top.
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Format: DVD
I saw this film on Showtime this week, and was blown away by it. I've seen hundreds of movies in my life, and this is only one of two films (the other being, "The Exorcist") where I actually had to turn my head from the screen. The abuse poor Sylvia took is so graphically and often illustrated that it brought me to tears, which is not easy to do. Catherine Keener is amazing, playing a totally unsympathetic role. Ellen Page is wonderful as always, and easily passes for a young teenager. Interestingly, this film makes a curious companion with "Hard Candy," where Ellen Page is the "abuser."

I recommend this film immensively, but be prepared for it to stay with you a long time. I know it did with me.
2 Comments 26 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: DVD
**Spoiler ALert**

When I was a kid, my parents had a book called "Encyclopedia of Crime" or some similar title. It was filled with a variety of gangsters, mass murderers ( I don't think "serial killer" had entered the lexicon yet) and other assorted creeps. One perosn in the book that really stuck out and spooked me wasn't Manson or Richard Speck but Indianapolis' own Gertrude Baniszewski, convicted of the true life horrible torture killing of 16 year old Sylvia Likens. The details of she and her charges horrible crimes against young Sylvia were sickening enough, but her old black and white photo in in the book I saw showed the face of true evil, almost a modern day witch- someone of whom "bogeyman" tales are probably still told.

"An American Crime" relives the horrible true crimes committed by Baniszewski in late Summer and early Fall of 1965. A demented, drug addicted single mom with too many mouths to feed takes in two neighborhood girls for a weekly payment from their travelling carney parents. After a misunderstood "insult" against her promiscuous daughter, Baniszewski lashes out sadisticly against the older foster child Sylvia. The true account of the case is stomach turning in the totrure and cruelty that Sylvia experienced. At the hands of one maniac, Sylvia's treatment is criminal and barbaric, but as this cruelty came from the hand of not only Baniszewski but her sons, daughters and other neighborhood kids is unfathomable. I imagine psychologists today could still write volumes on the group think sadism and the adult approval that had one maniac leading about a half dozen others.

There's no pretty ending here. Nothing seems to be learned, people go to jail, some for probably way too short a time.
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