Young idealists, Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters), thought they had the world by the tail. But, college proves harder than they expected and their perceived future greatness is at risk. Until Spencer (or was it Warren) hatches a plan to make the most audacious art heist in “American Animals.”
Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton made his theatrical debut with the strange but true story of a prodigal son’s return in “The Imposter.” With “American Animals,” he takes a “true story” about an art heist and mixes fiction and reality to create a uniquely told caper yarn. Early on in the film, the title “This I not a true story” morphs into “This is a true story,” letting you know that what you are about to see lends itself to interpretation.
The locale is Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky where Spencer is beginning his college career and the luster of a bright, preferred future appears to dim – a lot. One day, his class is allowed to view the rare books collection in the care of the college library’s curator, Mrs. Gooch (Ann Dowd). Spencer separates from the group and is mesmerized by the library’s showcase book – John James Audubon’s groundbreaking color print book, The Birds of America, worth millions.
This is where the lines between fact and fiction begin to blur as the filmmaker introduces the real life perpetrators of the heist and they get to tell their side of the story to the camera. The flow of the film cleverly melds the reality of the interviewees – Spencer Keoghan, Warren Lipka, Chas Allen (played by Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (played by Jared Abrahamson) – with scripter Layton’s perceptions and inventions inspired by their criminal deeds.
Though the “reality” of the crime, as shown, may be interpretive, the caper/heist story is done in a teasing way with brief flash backs and forth in the time of the crime and its planning and logistics. Just how did these freshman criminals plan their crime of the decade? They watched heist movies like “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Killing,” “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Snatch,” of course. Talk about babes in the woods.
The caper itself starts out slowly but, as it gains momentum, the manic nature kicks in as our heroes envision the heist as the means to give them the opportunity to achieve the greatness that each knows they deserve – well, except for Chas, who just needs the money.
The young cast does a solid job in presenting the personae of their characters, especially when we see and hear their real life counterparts tell their side of the story. There are more than two sides to this tale, however, and the filmmakers give us the fun and interesting view of a crime gone comically bad. I give it a B-.
When Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is asked by Lexington, Kentucky's Transylvania University's Admissions Office to tell them something about himself, he struggles. The aspiring artist believes he cannot produce great art without suffering, and, therefore, finds nothing within his middle class upbringing to differentiate himself. His best buddy Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), who Reinhard's parents disapprove of, has been brought up to believe he is indeed special. When Spencer tells Warren about the value of the first edition of Audubon's Birds of America, housed in his school's special collections library, Warren decides they can fulfill their potentials by stealing it in "American Animals."
Writer/director Bart Layton, whose first film was the documentary "The Imposter," takes an unprecedented approach in retelling this true story by having the real guys, recently released from prison, comment upon the action as portrayed by actors. I cannot recall this having been done before, Warren Beatty's "Reds" perhaps the closest approximation. The device not only makes the experience richer, each of the four expounding on his motives, but illustrates how individuals form their own realities, Spencer and Warren's recollections frequently in conflict. Layton's pumped his film with adrenaline, organic comedy springing from Warren's overly confident ineptitude, suspense from the in-fighting of the four would-be thieves as their high wire act falls to pieces.
Once Spencer has explained that the book is worth $12 million because it is actually a collection of paintings, he and Warren get to work watching heist movies to educate themselves. This leads them to two revelations, that they'll need a fence and that they'll need more help. Warren knows a guy who knows a guy who slips them the email address of someone in New York City who will not take phone calls nor respond to the same email address more than once. The duo drive to New York so that Warren may pay $500 to be connected with a fence - in the Netherlands. They also pull accounting major Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), who has dreams of joining the F.B.I., into their plot. Eric quickly points out all the logistical obstacles they will face, like access and security cameras, which leads them to conclude they must pull this off in broad daylight. They'll also need a getaway driver, found in the only member motivated by the monetary reward, fitness fanatic Chas Allen ("Everybody Wants Some!!'s" Blake Jenner).
Layton and his Director of Photography Ole Bratt Birkeland ("Listen to Me Marlon," "Ghost Stories") treat us to a spinning single take imagining of the heist as planned, from old man disguises and incapacitation of librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) through a smooth exit. The real thing is an altogether different experience, beginning when Warren chokes upon spying Gooch meeting with several others in a glass walled conference room. He must be reasoned with by the others in order to continue, and although Gooch proves more difficult to deal with than anticipated, the film's title implies a more wanton brutality than is in evidence, despite their having chosen to operate using "Reservoir Dog" code names.
The film is primarily focused on Spencer and Warren, Eric and Chas supporting players, and the differences between Keoghan and Peters are one of the film's most successful assets. Keoghan is introspective, the actor's physical appearance even suggesting a quiet furtiveness. Peters is manic, his at rest handsomeness morphing like a cartoon. The actor defines his character's psychology in two scenes, his jittery bravado failing to hide his inexperience when consulting with his Dutch fence, Mr. Van Der Hoek (Udo Kier), contrasted with his utter contempt for Bill Welton's (Wayne Duvall) threat of withdrawing his scholarship, delusion versus reality.
Layton's movie is slick, perhaps a little too slick at times (compositions are sometimes too studied), but the filmmaker is talented. He gets a laugh out of a reused title card. He changes the color of an object mid-action to reflect differing memories. A fantastical nighttime scene featuring a flamingo could be reality, a dream or false memory. Interviews with real subjects are seamlessly edited into the fictionalized action. Anne Nikitin's score employs cyclically surging violins leading up to the heist like the ocean's tide gathering in momentum.
"American Animals" is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tales, told with panache, but one never gets the sense that the stakes were high enough for its four bumbling thieves.
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