American Animals makes the point of clarifying to its audience that it’s not just based on a true story, it is a true story. Four college-age men plotted to steal rare books from a library. That’s the indisputable truth. However, who did what as far as the planning and execution of the heist is up for debate.
Writer/director Bart Layton weaves interviews with the actual criminals who took part in the heist with actors portraying them as they planned, executed, and then ultimately paid the price for their illegal scheme. The true story of the robbery that’s the focus of American Animals isn’t so easy to discern and varies from actual participant to participant as memories fade or shift to lessen responsibility for specific actions.
The story’s set in 2004 when a small group of friends came up with the bizarre idea to steal rare books by John James Audubon from Kentucky’s Transylvania University library. Once the idea of getting rich by stealing books worth more than $10 million took hold, the men carefully planned out how to incapacitate the librarian in charge of the rare books room, get by the minimal security, and make their escape in a waiting getaway car.
The mix of interviews with the real criminals and their family members with the reenactment of their crime could have come across as gimmicky. It doesn’t because Layton shrewdly allowed the real members of the heist gang to contradict each other’s recollections. This means the re-creations of the events surrounding the robbery are only possible versions of how the heist went down.
American Animals shows how inept these first-time robbers were and how a plan that began as almost a joke snowballed into the preparation of a huge art heist. The guys used code names inspired by Reservoir Dogs, and much of their preparation for the robbery included watching heist movies. They were ill-equipped to handle the heist and their planning, which included drawing a blueprint of the rare book room, only factored in best-case scenarios. Yet even when every aspect of the plan went awry, they almost pulled off the heist (albeit on a smaller scale than they’d anticipated).
Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson star as the four buddies who pushed each other into carrying out the heist. Keoghan plays Spencer Reinhard, the Transylvania University student whose field trip to the rare book room was the genesis of the heist. Evan Peters stars as Warren Lipka, Reinhard’s slacker friend who takes Reinhard’s joke about the goldmine just waiting to be stolen seriously and runs with the idea of stealing the books.
Blake Jenner plays Chas Allen, a clean-cut college jock who inexplicably allowed himself to be convinced to join the gang. Filling out the foursome is Jared Abrahamson as Eric Borsuk, perhaps the most unlikely member of the heist crew. Borsuk had his sights set on joining the FBI but instead wrecked his law enforcement dreams by agreeing to participate in what became known as the Transy Book Heist.
Jenner, Keoghan, Peters, and Abrahamson deliver outstanding performances as the college students who stupidly make a decision that will cost them dearly the rest of their lives. Writer/director Layton delves deep into the group psyche and explores how something akin to peer pressure propelled their plan, which sprang from a flippant comment, into action. We know the outcome of the heist, yet Layton’s film makes it difficult not to root for the foursome to emerge from this episode unscathed.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material
Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
Released By: Orchard Studios