*NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. American Animals opens in DC on June 8th*
If you and your buddies decided to pull off a heist tomorrow, what’s the first thing you would do? Chances are you’d spend the entire weekend boning up on your favorite heist movies, starting with Reservoir Dogs, and pinpointed every detail of the fictional crimes’ successes and failures. And if that’s your answer, then you could be one of the protagonists/antagonists of Bart Layton’s wildly entertaining and inventive American Animals, which is like Tarantino’s iconic heist flick and a docudrama rolled into one.
While the events are too crazy to contemplate they are actually based in fact, the 2004 “Transy Book Heist”, in which four Kentucky college kids with too much time on their hands and not enough excitement in their lives, decided to rob the university library of its collection of rare books. Layton blends reality and fiction using a series of conflicting narratives from the four criminals, depicted in latter, more sobering times by the actual grown-up criminals themselves. Playing hard and loose with the facts, then embracing the reality full-on, it’s a nifty, often hilarious and thrilling structure that is a total gamble for Layton to pull off, but he does so with style to spare.
“This is not based on a true story,” reads the opening title card before the “not based on” is hammered away suddenly, the film stars Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner as Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen respectively. The most exciting of the bunch of Keoghan, whose turns in Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer have seen him do terrific supporting work. In his first leading vehicle he plays Spencer with a wistful, wry curiosity that we still see in his older self, as he pokes gentle holes in the story’s narrative. That the actual players involved are pitching in and casting doubt is, in its own weird way, a sincere form of authenticity. We’re asked to question the Hollywood-ization of their gambit, while at the same time recognize that, hey, these guys are criminals with an agenda to make themselves look good.
Their scheme is utterly ridiculous. Spencer, in an attempt to learn more about himself and create the kind of unique experience that drives the greatest artists, plots to rob Kentucky’s University of Transylvania of its stash of priceless tomes, includings John James Audebon’s Birds of America, which is valued in the millions and gives the film its title. To do it he recruits wild card Warren Lipka, because every heist movie needs an unpredictable wild card. The adult Warren maintains his younger self’s gift for verbal flair, making him the least reliable narrator of all, but also the most enjoyable to watch. Completing the crew are resident brainiac Eric Borsuk and financial backer Chas Allen, and before they know it this crime is a real thing. Almost without realizing it, they go from daydreaming about the theft, to planning it, to executing it, and are wholly unprepared for the reality that comes with it. No matter how many times you watch Reservoir Dogs it’s not going to prepare you for the truth, and that truth is that people get scared, people get afraid, and people get hurt.
Weaving in commentary from the criminals’ parents, many of whom are still confused and distraught over the events, Layton and his editing team seamlessly switch gears and tones, stealing shots from a wide variety of famous crime movies in the process. Almost imperceptibly the film sheds its comic sensibilities and becomes something darker, Layton eases off on the visual flourishes to put us squarely in the moment of what this crime actual entails. Silly though it may be on paper, the consequences were real, and nothing drives it home better than the somber reflections of their older selves.
But perhaps there is no more scathing an indictment than from the one woman most deeply effected by their crime, Betty Jean Gooch (played by Ann Dowd), the librarian assaulted during its execution. “They did not want to work to achieve a transformative experience,” she says near the film’s conclusion, which could be seen as both a knock at her assailants and the movie itself for its judicious use of falsehood to animate fact.
Whether she meant it that way or not, American Animals combines the best elements of a documentary feature with the always-reliable heist movie to create a fun, unique, and thrilling entry into the genre.