Why did four Lexington, Kentucky college students from middle-class homes decide to steal a variety of rare books from the Transylvania University Library collection in 2004? That is the thorny question resting at the center of Bart Layton’s excellent heist film, American Animals. A film which proves to be something more than its basic description.
Two friends since childhood, Spencer Reinhard (the seriously on-a-role Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (an electric Evan Peters), hatch their plot casually at first. Reinhard takes a tour of the library’s special editions area where he feasts his eyes upon James Audubon’s original publication of Birds of America, as well as Darwin’s Origin of the Species.
He lingers long enough to come up with a bad idea. While the books are under lock and key, they are protected only by a single librarian (played by the incomparable Ann Dowd, who wastes not a moment of her limited screen time). Wouldn’t it be easy just to take them and sell them?
He brings this loose thought to Lipka, a scholarship athlete with foolish tendencies, including petty theft of restaurant meats. Lipka is more than a little intrigued and becomes the guiding force behind the plan. You get the sense that Reinhard goes along in the early going mostly for the excitement, while thinking they really aren’t going to follow through.
As they scheme their scheme (which includes watching a lot of heist movies) they realize it’s far more complicated than they initially considered. Not only do they need diagrams, alibis, and a fence, they are also going to need more bodies.
Lipka decides to pull in Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) a friend he had a recent falling out with, as well as overachieving business major Chas Allen (Blake Jenner, who I’m pretty sure is the new Chris Klein) with delusions of grandeur. Now a foursome, the group decides on Reinhard (whose feet are getting colder) as the lookout, Chas as the getaway driver, and Lipka and Borsuk doing the heavy lifting in the library.
On the day of the heist, things go terribly, terribly awry, starting with the librarian not going down easy. It’s a desperate comedy of errors filmed with real verve. You can almost feel the sweat and (later) smell the vomit onscreen.
All of this is well and better than good. Had that been the whole of the movie, you would have an excellent movie about a disastrous caper. However, Layton aims for more. Drawing on his experience as a documentarian, Layton intersperses interview footage of the real-life principles (let’s just say Lipka is a real character) on camera to tell the tale.
While the film is largely told from Reinhard’s perspective, it becomes increasingly clear that his memory is fuzzy, if not convenient. Whereas Lipka practically defines the term “unreliable narrator”. It’s a brave and ultimately clever choice by Layton. He’s basically admitting that he’s telling you a version of the story. Which is of course what any film about true life events is. It’s just that most dramatizations attempt to cast the movie spell over you, so you won’t think about such things while you’re watching.
Paradoxically, adding the murk of poor and inconsistent memory as a subtext, makes the film feel more authentic. Beyond the basic events, you can’t trust these guys any farther than you can toss Audubon’s unwieldy tome — and believe me, that wouldn’t be very far. Yet, this lack of clarity, whether intentional or not, tells you more about the characters than a lockstep presentation of the story ever would. Behind every lie is a truth about the teller. This film brings that concept to bear better than just about any recent film I can think of.
In some ways, American Animals is defined by what it doesn’t lay bare. Not only in the telling of the story, but also in its explanation of motive. Once again, why did these young college students, with no history of significant trouble, try to steal 12 million dollars worth of books?
Not a one of them is destitute. No one owes a thumb breaker any money. There is no sister without insurance in need of an expensive operation.
So again, why? The real-life characters struggle to explain it, but in the full telling, it’s most likely because they wanted, no, needed, something to happen. It’s not as simple as them being bored. All four have a sense that they are stuck. Destined for mediocrity, or worse. One gets the sense that is a fate they consider too terrible to contemplate.
As they get closer and closer to the day of the heist, you can see all the stop signs the characters blew through. Lipka hurtles forward and the other three drag behind. Letting go of their misgivings and rational considerations to be a part of something grand. Because nothing seems worse than a life of suburban ennui. Not even failure followed by a prison sentence.
That is a perspective I did not expect to see in a heist thriller. It’s one that Layton locks into and carries through until the end. It’s a fascinating choice. One, which along with his muscular directing chops, marks him as a filmmaker to watch.