American Animals (2018)

8 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

NOTE: This may be one of my new favorites, but I decided to go back to the standard-review format. (Maybe after another viewing or two, I’ll add a My Favorite Movies post about it.) I am giving it four stars because I feel it deserves it. (But really, what do these stars mean anyway?)

In writer-director Bart Layton’s brilliantly-crafted docudrama “American Animals,” we find ourselves asking the very same question as its interview subjects do: why?

As in, why did these good boys do this bad thing?

They came from good homes. They had no criminal records. They had no reason to commit this crime that ruined their good names.

And it was meant to be a harmless theft too. It didn’t turn out that way. (It was also very horribly planned out–let’s just say, professional thieves, they are not.)

“American Animals” tells the true story of four young men who in the mid-2000s attempted to pull off a heist at the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Their plan was to steal the library’s rare-book collection and sell them off to underground art dealers.

But this is not your typical documentary with brief dramatic reenactments of the events told to us by the interviewees (i.e. the real-life people who recall the incident and more). A majority of the film belongs to the dramatization of the choices made by the boys who planned this heist. And they’re played by familiar young talents such as Evan Peters (Quicksilver in the “X-Men” movies), Barry Keoghan (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), Jared Abrahamson (“Hello Destroyer”), and Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen, Everybody Wants Some). (We also get nice work from character actor Ann Dowd in a pivotal role as an unsuspecting librarian.)

However, for the context, we are treated to testimonials from the real-life people who perpetrated the event: Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen II. (In addition, some of their parents, one of the culprits’ teachers, and even the real-life librarian are sharing details with us as well.) The way these people tell this story in the present-day, looking back at what they did in the mid-2000s, it’s almost as if even they don’t fully understand why they did this.

(Note: This narrative device not only leaves plenty of room for analysis; it also makes for some comedic moments as well, such as when Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard have contradicting memories as to where Spencer first told Warren about the rare-book collection. Unreliable narrator, anyone? What makes the scene better is when the real-life Warren interacts with fictional Warren to assure him to trust Spencer’s memory better than his own as he was drunk and/or stoned that night.)

I mentioned that writer-director Bart Layton crafted this story brilliantly, and I wasn’t exaggerating–there is so much to desire about this art-imitates-life (or life-imitates-art) approach. The complicated editing by Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, and Julian Hart is also very impressive, making for a great mix of documentary and crime-drama.

How did all this begin? Well, in the beginning, we follow the college life of art student Spencer (Keoghan), who lacks inspiration. (He even tears through his canvas of a new work because it doesn’t satisfy–I’m not sure if the real Spencer really did that.) He confides in his troublemaking childhood buddy Warren (Peters) that he wants something exciting (or even tragic) to happen. (Note: Keoghan and Peters share convincing chemistry as the oil-and-water type of friendly duo.) When Spencer is given a tour of the library’s special collection of rare books, such as a first edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” he and Warren share a thought: what if we could steal it? And not just that book, but all the books?

How hard could it be?

The idea grows particularly in Warren’s head to the point where Warren even travels to Amsterdam to meet with black-market art buyers for an answer to how much they would pay for these books.

Millions, Warren assures Spencer upon arriving home. Millions. And thus, it’s on! They bring in two other boys, Eric (Abrahamson) and Chas (Jenner), and come up with a plan so crazy and far-fetched that it could only work in the movies…

What happens when they attempt the heist, I’ll leave for you to discover if you don’t know the story already. (I didn’t.) Layton has fun with the lighthearted approach upon planning the heist before pulling the rug out from under us to show how serious and real and unplanned the situation really is. That’s because, while the film is entertaining, there’s a real sense that Layton is making the film in an attempt to understand why this event happened and why these four kids felt compelled to go about this plan that ruins their lives.

These are four white, rich, jaded college boys who already have pretty much everything they need in life. It’s like they do this for the excitement, because it’s different, because it’s risky, because it gives them purpose, or whatever. Even with its narrative structure, “American Animals” doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to the questions it raises–it leaves room for its audience to analyze the situation. And it’s both fun and interesting to think about.

“American Animals” is one of the smartest and most intriguing heist films I’ve ever seen–I can’t think of another that kept my attention as much as this one.

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