At the beginning of “American Animals,” the viewer is informed via title information, that the film is not based on a true story, but is in fact, a true story. The film is not a documentary, it is comprised of the genres of crime and drama, however, the actual people, who are being portrayed by the actors, are juxtaposed and comment throughout the film’s 116 minute runtime. The four men add insight, question, and at times, contradict one another, as to what took place in 2004 in Lexington, Kentucky, involving the theft of approximately twelve million dollars in rare books. Included among the books was a first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” which was originally published on November 24, 1859, as well as an original copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” first published in 1838. (As an aside: Providing further commentary are family members and teachers of the four men).
The four individuals involved in the crime were Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk, Warren Lipka, and Spencer Reinhard. The talented artist and introverted Spencer played by Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and the athletically gifted, but on-the-edge and irresponsible, Warren, portrayed by Evan Peters (American Horror Story), have been friends since childhood; they are the ring leaders of what they will refer to as the heist. As the narrative advances, Spencer and Warren need to bring in additional people to successfully pull off the robbery. The two are joined by the intelligent and organized Eric (Jared Abrahamson), and the fitness minded and money driven, Chas (Blake Jenner). (As an aside: The actors were not allowed to meet with the people they were portraying until after filming was completed).
While on a tour for new students at his college library, at Transylvania University, Spencer learns of the books, and their incredible value. The information is imparted to him when librarian, Betty Jean ‘BJ’ Gooch, acted by Emmy winner Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale), takes a group of students into the special collections room. She prefaces the students’ entrance into the room by letting the tour group know, that from that moment forward, they will always have to schedule an appointment to be in the room, and will be accompanied, at all times, by a member of the library’s staff. (As an aside: Prolific German actor, Udo Kier (Blade) appears in a scene in the film as Mr. Van Der Hoek, a Dutch fence, who is interested in purchasing the stolen items).
Spencer, in what I believe, at the start, was merely an idea in jest, mentions to Warren about the books and their value, as well as, conceivably, how easy it would be to steal them. Warren takes hold of the idea, and begins to meticulously plan the job with Spencer, who again, I feel, was merely involved at the beginning for a way to break the monotony of what he felt was his ordinary life, and in an odd way, inspire his next piece of art work. From the outset, the plan seems doomed to fail, as Warren is shown to the viewer, searching Google as to how to pull off a bank robbery. Furthermore, he rents every heist film from the video store: For example, “The Killing,” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
A majority of the planning centers around how to subdue the middle-aged librarian, a task that none of the four participants are seemingly willing to engage in; eventually Warren steps up and agrees to take care of her. Additionally, the logistical problem of getting into and out of the library unrecognized, as well as undetected with the books is, of course, of paramount concern in the planning. A comical fantasy of the crime going off without a glitch is shown to the viewer, and while entertaining, in the end, as I am sure you can guess, the going off without a glitch part, remained just that, a fantasy.
The well executed and tension filled “American Animals” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2018. The film was written and directed by BAFTA winner, Bart Layton (The Imposter). I enjoyed “American Animals,” and I think Evan Peters is an excellent young actor, who will only keep getting better. I’ve been particularly impressed with his performances on “American Horror Story,“ especially seasons five and seven. What do the four teens have to do in order to successfully carry out the job? How far are they willing to take things for thrills and financial gain? What will their punishment be when and if any, or all, of them are caught? Those questions and more will be answered by the film’s conclusion.