By toying with traditional narrative in imaginative ways, Bart Layton’s true-crime tale about a heist gone terribly wrong raises lots of intriguing issues. The title alone, drawn—as we’re shown at the very start—from Darwin, for example, refers not only to one of the items marked for theft and the location of the caper but to the underlying instincts of the perpetrators. If one goes back to the full text, moreover, it also implies that those perpetrators were blind, as, morally and practically, they certainly were.
While alluding to many such matters, however, the visually arresting, cannily constructed “American Animals” never fully grapples with them. It is more impressive for its surface slickness and narrative trickery than for psychological depth, so while one can admire the dexterity of the filmmaking and its intricacy of design, when the picture is over, the effect evaporates. Still, though the impact may be ephemeral, it’s potent while you’re watching.
The major tweak that Layton gives to his quirky docu-drama about four Kentucky college dudes who plan to steal some valuable rare books is to mix his recreation of their bungled efforts with recollections by the actual perpetrators, whose remembrances sometimes clash with each other. (Toward the close, one of them even questions whether another might not have simply lied about something very important.) It’s a tactic that throws the whole issue of what “actually” happened into disarray, in the way that Sarah Polley did in her family memoir, “Stories We Tell.” (The very opening, where the words “This is not based on a true story,” suddenly lose the “not based on” part, points in the same direction.) In this case, though, the effect proves less intense.
In any event, the film is based on the would-be heist that occurred in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004. The scheme was hatched by childhood pals Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). The former, an aspiring artist, had won a scholarship to Transylvania University, while the latter was the recipient of an athletic one at the University of Kentucky. One day Spencer visited his campus library’s rare book room, where the librarian Miss Gooch (Ann Dowd, who does in fact look a bit like Auntie Mame’s secretary) showed the student group a copy of Audebon’s “Birds of America,” along with some other valuable items, among them an early edition of Darwin’s “Origin of Species.”
When he blithely told Warren about how little security there is to protect the volumes, Lipka, already weary of team practices and schooled in plenty of Hollywood heist movies, latched onto the idea of stealing the books and selling them through a fence to wealthy collectors. Reinhard at first dismissed the idea as crazy, but Warren wouldn’t let it go. (The real Lipka denies that he was the ringleader.) Eventually they enlisted two more University of Kentucky students in the scheme, which took on a life of its own: Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), whose math skills would come in handy, and preppy jock Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), who would serve as their wheel man.
As the plan proceeded, Spencer and Warren took on the task of locating a suitable fence, going to New York to meet “a guy,” an encounter that led Warren to travel to Amsterdam to see a real player (Udo Kier). (In retrospect, the real Reinhard wonders whether Warren actually saw anyone there.)
Of course despite all the planning, the actual robbery went terribly wrong, and Layton’s staging of it, complete with bad old-age makeup, phony bravado, incapacitating devices that fail to do their job, volumes too heavy to carry, and elevators that don’t go where they’re supposed to, proves a canny blend of slapstick farce and genuine suspense. It acts as a fine finale for the quartet of excellent young stars—glum, nervous Keough, loose cannon Peters, intense Abrahamson and hunky Jenner—who bring real conviction to their roles. No one else in the cast makes much of an impression, save for the suddenly ubiquitous Dowd, whose Gooch is a typically prim, Prussian librarian (the real article turns up at the end, a close approximation), and, of course, for the real guys that they’re playing. Of them Reinhard and Lipka are the most prominent, though one must say that despite their best efforts, they don’t emerge as particularly sympathetic, though the seven years each spent in prison appear to have mellowed them.
“American Animals” is technically proficient, with slick cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland (using Charlotte locations for Lexington, and Davidson standing in for Transylvania) and sharp editing by Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Julian Hart and Luke Dunkley, with the transitions from the actors to the real people they’re playing nicely handled.
One wishes that the film could have delved more deeply into the psyches of this quartet of college guys who undertook the lunatic Transy Book Theft as some sort of movie-inspired lark with little thought of the consequences, but at least it tries to convey the difficulty of pinning down what actually happened, and why. That, of course, is always the crucial problem in trying to understand the past, even when people are around to tell the story, and Layton’s film is notable for pointing to the vagaries of memory and muddled motives that inevitably intrude. The result may be imperfect, but that’s true of any historical account, certainly of events far more significant than this one. If “American Animals” reinforces that lesson among viewers, it will have provided a salutary service—as well as a pretty entertaining ride.