Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bart Layton
Stars: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk, Betty Jean Gooch.
In 2004, four bored college students attempted a brazen heist in which they set out to steal $12million worth of rare and valuable books from the special collections room of the library at Transylvania University in Kentucky.
Spencer Reinhard (played by Barry Keoghan, from Dunkirk and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, etc) was an aspiring artist who became obsessed with a couple of rare books at the university library, in particular John James Audubon’s rare, gloriously illustrated book Birds Of America, and a first edition copy of Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species. He and his best friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters, from American Horror Story, etc) decide to steal the books and sell them on the black market for a small fortune. Warren has watched too many Hollywood heist films for his own good and thinks that pulling off a robbery like this should be easy with careful planning.
As they proceed with the meticulous planning, they bring two other people into the fold – fitness fanatic Chas Allen (Blake Jenner, from Everybody Wants Some, etc) and shy accounting student Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson, from Fear The Walking Dead, etc). Allen’s personal life was a bit of a mess and he reluctantly came on board as the team’s getaway driver. All four come from fairly privileged backgrounds but felt that their lives are lacking excitement and fulfillment. The planning for the heist, inspired by countless viewings of Ocean’s Eleven and its ilk, involves lots of surveillance, disguises, and even arranging for a fence in Holland to take possession of the books. However, the actual robbery itself does not go quite as smoothly as they envisage.
American Animals is another of those films in which truth is indeed stranger than fiction. An opening statement says that “this is not based on true story” before it changes to “this is a true story.” The film also has a lot to say about the malaise that infects a lot of today’s generation. The daring heist has been brought to the screen by director Bart Layton, who comes from a background in documentaries and who often tackles controversial subject matter. His previous film was 2012’s The Impostor, an equally bizarre true story about a Spanish teenager who managed to ingratiate himself into a Texan family by pretending to be their long-lost son.
Here Layton again blurs the line between true documentary and true crime drama by juxtaposing a dramatic re-enactment of the planning and the actual robbery with interviews with the real-life culprits. Layton met with the real Reinhard, Lipka, Allen and Borsuk while they were serving time in prison and sought their approval for the project. Layton not only depicts the detailed preparations for the failed robbery but he also attempts to draw out the four protagonists and find their motivations and try to put events into perspective. Events are seen from a number of different perspectives, giving the material an almost Rashomon-like quality. And it doesn’t help that Likpa, in particular, is an unreliable narrator and unapologetic and holds no regrets about his actions.
Layton plays around with conventional narrative structures here, and the facts of the crime are a little hard to discern given the intriguing structure. Layton himself seems to have been influenced by a number of classic noir films and directors of the calibre of Tarantino and Scorsese, and there are numerous meta references to their films throughout American Animals. His direction is visually bold with lots of energy. The film has been slickly edited by Nick Fenton (On Chesil Beach, etc), whose dynamic choices bring plenty of energy to the material. A stand out sequence sees the foursome imagine the way in which the robbery plays out, accompanied by the remix of the Elvis hit A Little Less Conversation. There is a dynamic score from Layton’s regular collaborator Anne Nikitin, and there are also some unexpected touches of humour as well. The film has been nicely shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland (Four Lions, etc).
Peters steals the show with his cocky and convincing performance as Lipka, a charismatic rogue, and he brings plenty of swagger to his role. Keoghan continues to impress with another solid performance here and he delivers a sympathetic and thoughtful performance as Reinhard. Udo Kier pops up in a small cameo as a shady fence who meets Warren in a sleazy bar in Amsterdam to negotiate the handover of the books and money.
As well as the four real culprits talking about the robbery, there is also an interview with the librarian Betty Jean Gooch, who talks about her terrifying ordeal. In the re-enactment, Gooch is played by veteran Ann Dowd. Layton apparently refused to let his actors meet their real-life counterparts for fear that that might colour their performance and make them more sympathetic.