Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Some true stories seem made for the big screen. They focus on fascinating people or amazing events. American Animals does neither of these things. It is about four young men who attempted to steal several extremely valuable books from the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. The men are not that interesting and their heist is not particularly clever. Yet the movie is fairly entertaining the less you think about it due to the style, the structure, the stars and a commitment to telling this tale as thoroughly as possible.
Perhaps what writer/director Bart Layton found so curious in this story is that none of the men involved in the heist had anything in their backgrounds that would lead one to believe they might try something like this. It starts with Spencer Reinhard, an artist who attends Transylvania University. He is the one who first learns about the books. He mentions them to his friend, Warren Lipka, a college athlete who has grown disillusioned with his life. He begins putting the wheels in motion for the heist. Eventually, they bring in Eric Borsuk to be the brains and Chas Allen to be the getaway driver. None of them have any clue how to pull this off so, of course, there any many complications.
Part of what makes American Animals as okay as it is are its leads, Barry Keoghan as Spencer and Evan Peters as Warren. Keoghan plays Spencer as a nice guy who is attracted to the idea of stealing the books. He thinks adventure is what he needs to get his life going. He is sort of relatable. Evan Peters, on the other hand, is a force of nature as Warren. He is very charismatic and knows how to motivate people to see things his way. Peters has so much energy in the role that he owns nearly every scene. This is not a knock against the rest of the actors; he is that enjoyable.
The unique twist Layton brings to American Animals (112 minutes without the end credits) is that he intersperses interviews with the real Warren, Spencer, Eric and Chas in to comment on events. It is an interesting approach to have them essentially narrate a recreation of their own story. It lends an authenticity to the film it otherwise would have lacked. However, it could give the feeling that the movie is forgiving them for what they did. While Layton does not exactly condemn their actions, he also does not totally let them off the hook. He is mainly concerned with how these guys were able to convince themselves to go through with this crime. I am not sure that question is answered, but it is still somewhat intriguing to watch how everything unfolds.
Bart Layton (directing his first non-documentary) creates something pretty compelling by presenting the material in the manner he does. It becomes more than just an account of a heist. It is about the American dream, which includes with it the desire to not have to earn it. It is also about the truth, which may vary depending on who is talking. He inserts a lot of complexity into a story that does not initially seem all that complex. The result is generally absorbing, if very uneven. Layton was unable to figure out how to combine all of these elements in a way where they complement each other. It is a decent attempt at an ambitious film, but it never feels fully formed.
3 out of 5
Evan Peters as Warren Lipka
Barry Keoghan as Spencer Reinhard
Jared Abrahamson as Eric Borsuk
Blake Jenner as Chas Allen
Ann Dowd as Betty Jean Gooch
Written and Directed by Bart Layton