Two Kentucky university students devise a plan to rob the college library, drawing several of their friends to assist in the heist. An encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood crime thrillers cannot, however, prepare them for the real thing.
American Animals, a crime film written and directed by Bart Layton, freely adapts a real-life attempted university heist from 2004. It does so with a remarkable sense of play. Opening captions announce that it is both a true story and not based on one, while the fictionalised action is interspersed with interviews featuring the real-life people upon whom the film is based. The result is a bold attempt to blend fiction and fact: drawing considerably from the actual events but still find room to tell its own account. It presents truth and fiction, ultimately lying somewhere between drama and documentary.
In 2003, art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is given a tour of his university’s rare books collection – a collection headlined by a particularly rare edition of John James Audubon’s art book The Birds of America. With that one book worth millions of dollars on the open market, Spencer and his friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) develop a plan to steal the book and sell it to illegal traders in the Netherlands (including an unexpected but dignified Udo Keir). To help complete the heist, Spencer and Warren convince their friends Erik Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) to assist.
Layton directs the film with a strong sense of self-awareness, and his characters are highly cine-literate. For research they use a pile of iconic heist movies that seem straight from Quentin Tarantino’s DVD collection. It helps makes the would-be thieves an rather unlikeable bunch; both over-confident and smugly disaffected. When they undertake their heist a number of unexpected complications brings their attitude crashing down in an instant – the apparently cynical nature of the first act gives way to bleak emotional consequences as the story goes on.
Despite that growing drama the characters still struggle to engage the audience. American Animals seems a film better suited to admire than anything more profound. There is not enough to the characters to make a strong connection with the audience, and the storytelling style – while inventive – struggles to engage on its own merits. It gains a sense of unreliable narration, but subsequently loses the emotional strength that a more certain story could provide.
The central cast are solid, but the particular stand-out is Ann Dowd as Betty Jean Gooch, the senior librarian who single-handedly guards the rare books. It is a great role for an actor to play, showing off a woman in several very different emotional states and contexts. She gives the film the greatest amount of depth when it most requires it.
You can appreciate American Animals on an intellectual level, but you can never quite love it to the same emotional degree. It is well shot and paced, thoughtfully written and very well performed, but it ultimately feels a little too dry to care.