It seems so bizarre initially that you wonder if the true crime story contained in American Animals is indeed a true one. As the crazy, 2004 tale unfolds of how four college-age boys tried to steal rare books from a library it becomes clear that the real debate is if these now thirtysomething-aged men feel genuine remorse over their actions. Writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) has created a memorable crime drama brilliantly interspersed with interview moments involving the actual four men who committed the audacious heist.
Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is a freshman art student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Just as he is in 2017, Spencer is unsatisfied with life. His upper middle-class upbringing has left him bored and looking for inspiration. Spencer’s best friend, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters, X-Men: Apocalypse, Kick-Ass) is on an athletic scholarship at the University of Kentucky, but he is a restless spirit. He would rather be smoking weed and looking for a thrill than study or continue his athletic career.
During one night of doldrums, Spencer tells Warren, who often bounces off walls, about a collection of rare books sitting unguarded at the campus library that is worth $12 million. Looking back, neither one can now agree as to who came up with the idea of robbing the library, but the seed is nonetheless planted.
They begin scheming in the successive months, and they bring in two more accomplices – Chas Allen (Blake Jenner, Glee), their so-called money man and getaway driver, and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson, Travelers). In preparation they draw maps, collect costumes, watch movies about heists, and smoke weed. They soon learn, though, that real crime life isn’t like Ocean’s 11 and everything that can go wrong, does.
The biggest strength to Layton’s effort is having the now grown-up felons recollect about their criminal enterprise. He even breaks a wall down and injects them into scenes involving their past lives. To make it spicier, their viewpoints about events differ as widely as Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly’s interpretation of the Nancy Kerigan incident. Guilt is a powerful thing and they express regret over what happened to the librarian assigned to protect the books, yet you wonder if Warren, for example, is shedding only crocodile tears when he is recounting what happened.
Layton’s soundtrack selection is nothing less than perfect with choices like “It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube and “Bullet in the Head” by Rage Against the Machine, to name a few. They are all well-timed and they fit smoothly with each scene they are played in. The steady pacing helps build the suspense as does the terrific editing. Peters delivers the stand-out performance of the flick as he hits all the right notes with an individual who is the least sympathetic of the four main characters.
In the end, American Animals is a cautionary tale about why it’s not a good idea to cross the line between right and wrong. Whatever the reason behind it the penalties for making that choice are life altering. The scary thing about this particular story is that these four men would possibly do it all over again if given the opportunity.
On a letter grade scale from “A” being excellent to “F” for failing, American Animals receives a B.
American Animals is rated R and has a running time of 116 minutes.