Director: Bart Layton
Writer: Bart Layton
Cinematographer: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Producer: Derrin Schlesinger, Katherine Butler, Dimitri Doganis, and Mary Jane Skalski
by Jon Cvack
American Buffalo (1996), American Pastoral (2016), American Beauty (1999), American Gangster (2007), American Psycho (2000), American Gods (2017), "American Crime" ('15-'17), American Pie (1999), American Made (2017), American Sniper (2014), American Fable (2016), and now American Animals. This is perhaps just a third of all the movies that begin with the prefix. I’m not sure what makes writers and filmmakers whether it’s a safe, less inspired, or more straight forward/descriptive choice (Gangster, Made, or Sniper), or that it captures a much broader idea about the country and where it is (Beauty, Fable, Pastoral).
With six of these title types rolling out in the last five years alone - I’ve grown suspicious about the prefix. If the production couldn’t agree on an inspired title how could they agree on creating an inspired film? Combined with a heist plot which hasn’t offered much refreshment in the last decade, I figured American Animals was going to provide another overdeveloped genre piece; until I started seeing the response on Facebook and decided to check it out.
The film involves the true story of four college students who plotted to steal some highly valuable rare books from the University of Kentucky library. Made by the The Imposter’s (2012) Bart Layton - a documentary which followed the story of a con man who convinced a Texas family that he was their relative. American Animals takes on a similar structure, interviewing the four actual men involved: Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) as they recount the story and explain why they did what they did.
The story centers on Spencer, who’s an aspiring artist studying at the University of Kentucky, in which Barry Keogha provides an incredible follow up to The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Spencer finds little meaning in life, hoping to accomplish something extraordinary that can leave some degree of impact on the world. His best friend is Warren Lipka, who’s on an athletic scholarship at a neighboring school, pushed on by his parents rather than his own interest. Evan Peters puts on a phenomenal foil against Koegha as a severe pothead and alcoholic who’s also searching for some purpose to this life. When Keogha learns that his college library is in possession of a $12 million book of original paintings by John James Audubon and mentions the piece to Warren, the two decide to try and plan a heist to steal the book.
The style at this point first refers to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), utilizing a similarly fast and unreliable narrator(s) as each participant explains their version of the story. The pace is rapid, and while often used to try and cover a weaker story (like the American prefix), it creates a thrilling momentum, pulling you along like it did to those involved, asking enough questions to make you hungry what’s next.
As the actual Spencer says, the idea never functioned as something that could actually happen so much as something that would soon reach its limits. However, as the pair researched the library, charting exits and entrances, when employees arrive and leave, how they could grab the painting and escape, the plan becomes increasingly plausible; culminating when Warren allegedly travels to Amsterdam in order to meet with some hoodlums who could sell the paintings for a cost. They settle on providing Warren and Spencer with around a third of the selling price - $4 million- though they will need to find a dealer to provide an official estimate and confirmation of the piece.
By this point the most obvious questions are - how they expect to enter a building with security cameras and people everywhere and how they expect to find a dealer who would approve the piece when the theft inevitably makes the headlines. In near perfect timing, Warren addresses one of the points, requesting that they bring on his former best friend Eric Borsuk who’s a guy allegedly good at logistics, played by Jared Abrahamson who somehow feels more real than the actual Eric Borsuk; embodying the spirit of a stoic overall cool guy who doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks and just wants to join the FBI as quickly as possible; all the more fascinating when he’s willing to throw all that away for a million dollars. While I’m not entirely sure what his purpose was other than to provide some insight into how to pull it all off, the movie also suggests that in the spirit of camaraderie, Warren brought him in simply to rekindle a friendship where, like them, Eric craved some excitement.
Throughout the planning phase, they consume as many heist movies as they can, going so far back as Kubrick’s The Killing (1956); hoping that each film can help reveal a hole that they’re failing to see. This leads to them realizing they need a driver, recruiting a local entrepreneurial wunderkind Chas Allen who started his first business at the age of sixteen and has found success ever since; again, searching for grander meaning to his life.
Between the recruitment and planning is a fantastic bond between the characters, where perhaps not since Swingers (1996) have a band of friends felt so genuine. They choose color names, with Chas pissed he gets Mr. Pink, addressing the fact that they’re stealing from the movie, knowing that it shouldn’t matter because they all know each other, and yet doing so because they know it’s a simple solution toward preserving anonymity. It’s a scene that could so easily have felt hackneyed and yet it’s the dynamic between the characters that pulls it all off.
The day arrives and they’ve agreed to dress up like old men requesting to see the art collection. The library is managed by the nascent and exciting Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd; who I previously saw in Hereditary (2018) and am hoping will be this generation’s Kathy Bates). While I was still unsure about the cameras, the disguises were simple enough. They were going to tase the librarian, steal the art, and then leave; hoping no one suspects the students.
In one of the most thrilling sequences - all the more impressive for how absurd it actually is - Chas picks up a minivan and they head on over. In a great scene, the actual Spencer explains how he kept hoping up until that point that it was all just an exercise in seeing if they could do it; hoping that as they got closer they would all realize how absurd the idea actually was. And yet it never comes - Spencer keeps lookout, Chas stays behind the wheel, while Warren and Eric head upstairs. Eric sees extra people in the library, freaks out, and they abort.
But it doesn’t end. They decide to go back, abandoning the old people costumes, instead playing slicked up versions of themselves with the same division of labor. Warren approaches the library entrance, dressed in a suit, and she lets him inside. With tension piercing through the screen, Warren walks around the room, pretending to be an art collector. He looks as young as he is (though Peters was 30 at the time of filming), immediately gaining the librarian’s suspicions and then Warren invites Eric upstairs; who’s expecting to find her knocked out and the painting ready to move. Instead she buzzes him in, and as we’re wondering whether this is even going to happen, Warren tases her. She falls to the ground and pisses her pants, scared out of her mind; fully awake and clearly in pain. For the first time, both of them grasp the severity of what they’re doing and the consequences they face.
Nevertheless, they steal the painting, along with an original Darwin and other rare books, both not part of the plan. They head down the elevator, planning to escape out the basement and discovering a locked gate. They head back upstairs, exiting on the second floor and taking the staircase down, dropping the paintings, keeping the two rare books, and head out the main entrance to the library where dozens can see them. The front desk clerk calls the cops. Chas picks them up, leaving Spencer behind who watches the disaster unfold. The police arrive and find has abandoned the van for a different car.
Continue to Part 2...
BELOW: A scene that should play cheap but doesn't
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