You’d call this heist film un-fucking-believable, except that American Animals really is rooted in fact – that is, whenever the British documentarian Bart Layton, in a mightily impressive narrative feature debut, doesn’t mess around too much. “This is not based on a true story,” reads a title card at the start … before the words “not based on” slowly vanish from the screen.
It’s 2004 in Lexington, Kentucky, when homeboys Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), students at local Transylvania University, decide to pull off a robbery. They don’t need the money, not really. But right there at the school’s special collections library sit original editions of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, as well as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. How easy it would be, these American idiots think, to sneak these priceless literary landmarks past head librarian Betty Jean Gooch (a superb Ann Dowd, the punisher Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale) and sell them on the black market.
The plan is hatched. All that’s left is to recruit two fellow students, Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), to carry them to the finish line. And, oh yeah, they need disguises, deciding to dress as old men in hats, coats, gray wigs and beards that fool no one. They deduce that final exam period is the best time to pull off their amateur robbery. Distractions, you know. They’ve already found an Amsterdam accomplice (Udo Kier, of all people) to fence the books and plenty of how-to inspiration by renting classic heist films (The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Rififi, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job) from the local Blockbuster. A nice touch, that.
And so these amateur Reservoir Dogs begin to execute their master plan with a minimum of talent for the game. Layton, whose provocative 2012 doc The Imposter explored the mindset of Frenchman who passed himself off as the missing 16-year-old son of Texas parents, directs for maximum suspense and roaring slapstick comedy. And then he adds the coup de grace, having the actual criminals – now 14 years older after serving their sentences – appear on camera to comment about what’s happening on screen in anecdotes that are as compelling as they are contradictory. It’s a brilliantly daring move, and Layton works it with surprises too good to spoil here. And what the film occasionally lacks in character motivation is compensated for by the acting chops of Keoghan (so good as the boy monster in The Killing of the Sacred Deer) and Peters (Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past).
The holes in the script, howver, are a peskier issue, making the film feel thin when you most want it to have meat on its bones. At one point, Spencer asks, “Ever feel like you’re waiting for something to happen but you don’t know what it is?” The question nags at the film and its audience. Still, American Animals is a high-style caper that touches a deeper chord of youthful indiscretion and moral imbalance. You won’t be able to stop talking about it.