For a short time in late 2004, the story was catnip to Kentucky media. Three students — and one college dropout — from Lexington’s Transylvania University attempted a rare-book heist that, to put it mildly, did not go as planned.
To say much more about the results would do a disservice to the nervy suspense of Bart Layton’s American Animals, which dramatizes the young men’s folly with the ratcheting formalism of a Brian de Palma set piece. But if Layton’s movie risks validating a bungle to the clockwork precision of high art, it’s ultimately an appropriate approach for four unlikely protagonists whose criminal worldview evolved in large part from the crime cinema of their youth. This movie is so audaciously self-reflexive that each theater screening of it ought to be equipped with two-way mirrors.
Layton is a documentarian, and this marks his first foray into feature filmmaking. But it’s the vestiges of his earlier work that helps make American Animals feel so novel. One imagines him weighing the best way to spin this narrative — as a feature or doc — then agreeing to split the difference, if not 50/50 then at least 80/20. To that end, he interviewed the real perpetrators and their families and teachers, splicing their direct-to-camera reflections into the docudrama set about 14 years earlier.
This approach adds veracity to the re-enactments, but only to a point. As we soon learn, these young men are unreliable narrators, with sketchy memories of the events in question. An encounter with the point person for a dealer in stolen goods is remembered two different ways from Clayton’s contemporary interviewees, so he visualizes both possibilities in ways that reward our close inspection. For a director who built his résumé on the genre most associated with unalloyed fact, American Animals is about the slipperiness of truth — about memory as a game of self-serving Rashomon telephone.
The perpetrators are, down to the last, white, male and privileged. Then as now, they resemble guys you’d expect to see managing a startup, DJing at a nightclub, captaining a lacrosse team. If there’s an apparent ringleader, the movie suggests, it’s Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a ne’er-do-well on an athletic scholarship he seems intent on torpedoing. When his cautious art-student buddy Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) informs him, perhaps in passing and perhaps with malicious intent, that Transylvania’s library contains multimillion-dollar folios of Audubon’s Birds of America and other rare volumes in its Special Collections, Warren’s criminal mind races.
He sees an opportunity to be grasped, and Spencer soon agrees, if not with his co-conspirator’s zeal. Both are bored out of their skulls, which is convincingly offered as their primary motivation. Watching hot-rodders turn wheelies in a supermarket parking lot, then set fire to a shopping cart, seems to be the chief source of entertainment in northern Kentucky in the dreary early Aughts.
The ineptitude of their planned theft is so staggering that we have no choice but to believe it, because nobody would make this stuff up. These are the kind of small-time crooks who leave so many breadcrumbs that even a bumbling inspector could open a bakery. Warren openly Googles information about how to stage a perfect robbery on a library computer. Spencer, impersonating a high-bankrolled art dealer, gives an auction-house authenticator his personal cellphone number, complete with its juvenile voicemail recording. When the day of the heist finally comes, the two boys and the accomplices they enlisted later in the process — Blake Jenner’s Chas and Jared Abrahamson’s Eric — costume themselves as hobbling senior citizens straight out of central casting, as their harebrained attempt to look inconspicuous. Warren’s appearance can only be described as Unabomber-chic.
American Animals is both a very good caper film and a metaphysical riff on such. The criminals, raised on Hollywood fantasies of the perfect crime, fashion themselves as characters in a celluloid fiction, renting movies like Kubrick’s The Killing and taking fastidious mental notes. When it comes time to pull off the heist, Warren bestows everyone with “colorful” noms de plume cribbed from Reservoir Dogs. To cement the perception that their actions are more informed by movie formulae than reality-based reconnaissance, Layton lets his formal imagination run amok with split-screens, black-and-white sequences, magic-realist surprises, and that aforementioned artificially heightened intercutting from the De Palma playbook, of which its subjects would likely approve.
As for the film’s unusual name, it’s borrowed from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which is one of the antiquarian books the characters seek to pilfer. A quote from it opens the movie: “American animals migrated from the outer world to the deeper and deeper resources of the Kentucky caves.” This intertextuality resonates with the film’s setting, but the film’s title works on a level separate from Darwin.
Its criminals are uniquely American animals because only youths reared in an environment of cosseted invincibility would attempt a caprice such as this — not to escape poverty or persecution or as a political statement, but because it’s fun. It’s an adventure, and it’s free of consequences.
Verbal Kint strode coolly into a getaway car after an entire movie convincing the world he was someone else. Piece of cake, right? In a country where inexplicable criminal behavior seems to be rising among suburban, college-age youths, the suspects of Layton’s film may be all too usual.
AMERICAN ANIMALS. Director: Bart Layton; Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier; Distributor: The Orchard; Rating: R; Now playing at AMC CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Cobb Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, AMC Pompano Beach 18 and other South Florida theaters.