AMERICAN ANIMALS – Review
AMERICAN ANIMALS opens with a screen showing the familiar words “this is based on a true story” but the text quickly changes to “this is a true story,” a hook sure to get your attention,
AMERICAN ANIMALS tells a strange but true story, of a daring daylight art heist, by four college students who attempt to steal a rare and valuable Audubon book from a Kentucky university, but it is the way it tells it – with the actual people involved periodically commenting on the story as the actors recrete the events like any crime film.
The combination of narrative film and documentary film techniques makes writer/director Bart Layman’s film unique. Sometimes a narrative film closely recreates real events of a true story and some documentaries uses re-enactments in telling about real events. This film straddles both forms, with surprisingly good results.
This in the narrative film debut of British director Bart Layton, whose first film was the documentary THE IMPOSTER, about a truth-stranger-than-fiction tale about French conman who posed as a missing Texas teen. In AMERICAN ANIMALS, Layton combines techniques of documentary with fiction films for a unique kind of “based on a true story” film.
There are several elements that make this crime story oddball, and even add a strange touch of dark humor to its irony and tragic outcome, First is the unlikeliness of this art heist in the middle of the country and the people who carried it out, suburban college students who were from middle class families and had no criminal history. The objects they chose to steal were unusual – four enormous double folio volumes of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” and a copy of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” so rare as to be difficult to sell. The college library where the books were housed was on the campus of a university that has a surprising name for the middle of Kentucky – Transylvania University.
These four nice young men from suburban middle class neighborhoods of Lexington, Kentucky, are not who you are likely to picture when someone says “art thieves.” Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Charles “Chas” Allen II were all bright young men with promising futures, they weren’t desperate for money and none had a criminal background. The heist was the result of a desire to do something special in their lives, a kind of idea friends might kick around jokingly late at night, puzzling out how to do it, but in this case, at some point the plot took on a life of own.
A chief reason for that may have been one the the four, Warren, who seems to have taken the idea of stealing them seriously from the start and exerted a kind of force of personality over the others that kept them moving along with the plan. Warren was Spencer’s childhood best friend who was a little more bad boy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, the friend Spencer’s parents would not have chosen for their artistically talented son. Once Spencer described the valuable books in the library of his college, Transylvania University, to Warren, he seized on the idea of stealing them as something that would make their lives different from the ordinary. It did that but not in the way Warren envisioned, giving them lives of sudden wealth.
The events around hatching this unlikely plot and carrying it out are portrayed by actors, with the actually people commenting periodically on the various turning points or lending insight on what led to those decisions. The actual people sometimes saw or remembered events differently, one of the elements that adds that dash of dark humor.
A fine cast of actors portray the students as they hatch the elaborate plot, one that involved disguises and detailed maps of the library where they are stored, and a plan straight out of the movies.
Barry Keoghan is excellent as art major Spencer Reinhard, a good son from a loving upper middle class family who worries that his happy, comfortable upbringing has not given him the depth of life experience needed to be a great artist. Spencer is the major character in this story, through whose eyes we often see events, but close behind is his best friend Warren Lipka, played by Evan Peters. The idea originates with best friends Spencer Reinhard (played well by Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). Charismatic and strong-willed, Warren is more a bad boy from a less affluent middle class family that is being divided by divorce, and seeking an escape from his messy family life.
As Warren weaves his intricate heist plan, drawing Spencer along in his fantasy, they bring in two others, accounting major Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and fitness buff Charles “Chas” Allen II (Blake Jenner). A major obstacle they face is the special collections’ stern, starched librarian B.J. Gooch (the wonderfully crisp Ann Dowd).
At every turn, the viewer is sure the sheer outrageousness of the this plan will bring it down, or at least cause one of the to speak up. Actually, they do but Warren steamrolls their objections every time. The craziness of the idea, the inventiveness they show in planning it and the wrong-headedness of the idea all spike up in this thoughtful, insightful film, almost a study in group dynamics, that is by turns absurdly comic, grippingly suspenceful and ultimately tragic.
It is an impressive launch for writer/director Bart Layton, and an involving film. The unique structure of letting the actors play out the story and crafted fully rounded characters we care about, while periodically pausing the story at certain moments so that the real people can contribute insights into their own experience, adds greatly to the film, elevating it above a quirky crime story to something deeper. The technique adds a dimension of insight on human nature, the desire to leave one’s mark on the world, and the particular way youth can color foolish plans.
AMERICAN ANIMALS opens Friday, June 15, at the Tivoli Theater.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars