Director Bart Layton has followed in the footsteps of Truman Capote in creating a filmic version of the nonfiction novel in his new picture, “American Animals.” While it could be categorized as a crime picture, it is less about the actual crime committed and more about the analysis of the motivation and emotional fallout of the episode.
The film begins with the disclaimer “This is not based on a true story.” Then the words “not based on” fade away, to leave the text “This is a true story.” In a remarkable pastiche, Layton intercuts a fictional rendering of a real-life crime with documentary interviews with the actual participants, now of course older. The story begins when Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) takes a tour, conducted by librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), of the special collections room at Transylvania University in Kentucky. There he sees the valuable work of John J. Audubon on display in a glass case.
Later Spencer is hanging out with his friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and mentions what he has seen. Warren hatches a plan to steal the Audubon and other rare books such as Darwin’s “The origin of species”.
As the planning continues, the two young men face several obstacles. One is that there is no guidebook to stealing art from a museum, so they watch old heist movies to get ideas. Another is finding a fence, which leads them to New York City and then for Warren to Amsterdam.
As the plan progresses, they realize that they need other people, such as a getaway driver, to assist with the theft. So their friends Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are recruited to assist. The plot then follows them as they prepare for the actual crime.
The film is a rumination on what motivated these men to commit the crime and how they view their participation and its consequences now. The story makes clear that there are no easy explanations for the motivation. The fictional portion of the film gives you the sense of adventure that the early stages of planning gave to their everyday life. But then this is counterbalanced by conflicting emotions as the nitty-gritty of the perpetration of the deed come closer to fruition.
As the real-life participants reflect on their actions, it becomes clear that their memory is not reliable. There are conflicting versions of what happened. Do we assume that they are reliable narrators? The film does a thoughtful job portraying their confusion about their own feelings.
Barry Keoghan (“Dunkirk”) gives a subtle performance as Spencer. His laid-back persona is a contrast with the facial expressions that express his emotions. As the film progresses, knowing what we know, his attempts to project one image and yet not fully succeed in doing so is notable.
Evan Peters also gives an excellent performance as Warren. He portrays the mania, the spontaneity and often impulsive decision-making of his character. He also ably projects the almost tragic sense of optimistic hope that inspires Warren.
There is something a little disconcerting, in a way that takes you out of your comfort zone, about the interspersed interviews with the real-life people who committed this crime. To shift from fiction to reality and then back again adds to the sense that there are many versions of what happened and why.
Yet there are times when the film seems to drag a little bit. The fact of the matter is that planning a crime is not as exciting as actually committing it. It also takes an adjustment to get used to the cutting back and forth between the actual participants and their fictional counterparts.
Do we learn anything new about human motivation and behavior as a result of watching this movie? That is debatable. Yet the film does a wonderful job in its examination of this particular group’s motivation and behavior, as much as it can be discerned.
So you can choose whether or not to research the actual escapade before you see the film. Unlike “Titanic,” where most people knew that the ship would sink, this case is more obscure. But this is a worthwhile investigation of the human experience.
Rating: Three and a half stars
American Animals is the unbelievable but entirely true story of four young men who attempt to execute one of the most audacious art heists in U.S. history. The film centers around two friends from the middle-class suburbs of Lexington, Kentucky. Spencer (Barry Keoghan), is determined to become an artist but feels he lacks the essential ingredient that unites all great artists – suffering. His closest friend, Warren (Evan Peters), has also been raised to believe that his life will be special, and that he will be unique in some way. But as they leave the suburbs for universities in the same town, the realities of adult life begin to dawn on them and with that, the realization that their lives may in fact never be important or special in any way.
Determined to live lives that are out of the ordinary, they plan the brazen theft of some of the world’s most valuable books from the special collections room of Spencer’s college Library. Enlisting two more friends, accounting major Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and fitness fanatic Chas (Blake Jenner), and taking their cues from heist movies, the gang meticulously plots the theft and subsequent fence of the stolen artworks. Although some of the group begin to have second thoughts, they discover that the plan has seemingly taken on a life of its own.
Unfolding from multiple perspectives, and innovatively incorporating the real-life figures at the heart of the story, writer-director Bart Layton (The Imposter) takes the heist movie into bold new territory.
Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier
Director: Bart Layton
Writer: Bart Layton