This is a true story. I know. I didn’t have the intangible excuse of saying how unbelievable this heist was and that it would never happen in real life – because it did. There was something really appealing about this film throughout, but I’ll come on to that a little bit later.
American Animals is about four young middle-class men from Kentucky, their lives set up for success, who decide they want to break free from the norm – all with their own reasons – by planning a real heist. Their names are Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), and after Spencer discovers a load of valuable books, including one worth $12 million, at a school guarded only by a solitary librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), Warren begins to set up a plan to steal these valuable artefacts.
It was actually adapted from a book by Eric Borsuk, who wrote it about his and the group’s experiences pulling off this audacious act. It became a big hit, King of Comedy style, until the film rights were brought, and they stop being sold. Now, new editions can be purchased, but originals are hard to come by. If you dig deep, you’ll probably find some second hands at around £100. Bart Layton was the director-writer, an English filmmaker who also produced 2012 documentary/mystery The Imposter. But more on the film.
What makes this so interesting is the fact it blurs the lines between documentary and acting, something I’ve never seen done before. At the start, I had my doubts. Would that work? Having the real life people who committed the crime, almost narrating or commenting on the events, while we indulge in the film. But I have to say my doubts were unfounded. It gave it a sort of personal touch. If we had just had the film, it probably would have felt like any other heist. But this bold move is what separates it from good to excellent. You know when you see – THIS IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY – at the start of a film, you often feel it’s probably been over embellished, or exaggerated. But that’s not the case with American Animals. We have the proof. So when I heard an exhalation of air and the words BASED ON self righteously fade away, I had no qualms.
I also loved the fact the interviews gave slightly conflicting views of what we were seeing on screen. It made it feel like a version of a version – at one point (the real) Spencer and Warren describe this man they were meeting who would provide the contact to Dutch criminals they will sell the books to. Spencer believed this man to have a ponytail and a purple scarf, while Warren said he was old and white haired. It latches onto the idea of the unreliable narrator. How much of this are they getting wrong as they retell the story? As the viewer, we have no idea, which means all our trust falls into the hands of four untrustworthy people.
Why is this film so captivating? Because we’ve all been there before. Well, maybe not all of us, but if you’re reading this review you’re probably white, middle class and in your late 20s to mid 30s. And haven’t we all had that desire to just be done with society and go live in a woods, or do a Forrest Gump and run for a year, or, like our good friends the American Animals, commit a heist? When our minds weren’t fully developed, or our morals were imbalanced? We had a choice – we can be good guys, or we can we bad guys. The majority of us go with good, and continue with our lives that so many have already lived. But others go with bad, wanting to leave their mark on the world, and do something to make them different. Perhaps it’s not the best idea, but how many people can say they’ve committed a heist? This will be remembered forever, by them and by the public, and as Warren says, “You’ll be dead one day.”
But there are also the cons. They spent seven years in prison, which – probably because we got to know the characters throughout the film – felt harsh. Imagine how seven years in prison must change a person. There were no Scandinavian luxury-jails involved. Rehabilitation isn’t the aim. They had promising lives, all of which were scuppered. Only Spencer continued his dream to be an artist. Chas had created his own company by 12, and was an entrepreneur in the making. Eric was working in accounting, looking to join the FBI. And Warren… well, Warren is the anomaly.
Whilst blurring the lines between documentary and film, it also blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. The likelihood of them pulling it off was slim – they were inexperienced and pretty stupid criminals, and the plan was brazen to say the least. There’s a brilliant bit after they’ve committed the crime, and they’ve realised this might not have gone to plan. The pressure gets to them, and it’s superbly portrayed. Eric gets in a fight. Spencer a car crash, where he seems to just leave the car. Chas threatens his supposed ‘partners’ with a gun.
I was also fascinated by this idea said by Spencer – that he saw the whole thing through Warren’s eyes, from his point of view. They were going to sell the books to these criminals that Warren had been in contact with, but how much of that was true? He says he remembers dropping him off at the airport, but couldn’t he have just turned right around and gone home? How would Spencer know? Did he really see that ponytail man stop and talk to Warren, or did he tell him that, and he believe it? When this was put forward to Warren, he said, “You’ll just have to take my word for it.” Typical. But it goes to a wider point – how much of what we see is actually what we see, or how much of it is what other people tell us? Is this one of the reasons they wanted to break away from society? Perhaps. But it still ends up infiltrating their tiny group of four.
The acting is also sublime. Especially with the documentary side involved, you might have thought the actors be heavily influenced by the characters they were trying to play. But it’s understated, and they play it so comfortably, not directly trying to imitate, but by doing that, they catch a real essence.
I didn’t know much about this film, but it really is a hidden gem. I’ve given it an eight, which means very good, and I highly recommend a watch. It feels like a crossover of Ocean’s Eleven and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s funny, dark, dramatic, thrilling and pulls on your heart strings. And completely and utterly true.
Best character: Of the real men, I pretty much liked them all, but Spencer was my favourite. You could tell Warren was a real wildcard though, and he’s now back in college studying filmmaking. Of the characters, although Spencer probably is the main protagonist, Warren has such an allure to him that it’s impossible not to gravitate in his direction. Warren Lipka, played by Evan Peters, wins this round.
Least favourite character: Maybe go with Chas. He just took everything too personally.
Best scene: The botched robbery is nerve jangling and tough to watch. The sympathy for our under pressure robbers, finally realising what they might be getting into (especially Eric), and also B.J. Gooch, the librarian, who clearly is emotionally distraught by the incident.
Favourite quote: There’s a great bit, but to understand it you have to know Spencer’s been waiting his whole life for something to happen – he doesn’t know what – but for something just to click. It’s one of the main reasons he commits the heist. The real Warren brilliantly refutes this with, “You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. And that, there are things you can point towards… which’ll show that you’re special, that show you’re different, when, in all reality, those things… don’t matter. And you’re not special.”
You’re not special. And I’ll leave it at that.
American Animals – 8 out of 10