Proving that reality can trump fiction, “American Animals” tells the true story of four college students who perpetrated one of the most daring art heists in U.S. history. British writer-director Bart Layton designed this thrilling heist film around the candid interviews of the four thieves themselves.
Bored with finals, frats, and smoking weed, college friends Spencer and Warren lament about their sad lives and sad futures, and decide they should commit a major crime to shake things up. They recruit their friends, Eric and Chas, watch a bunch of heist movies, and hatch a plan to rob the rare book library at Transylvania University in Kentucky.
While it is based on a true story, and includes interview footage, this is actually an incredibly good heist movie. From the moment the idea to steal the valuable books is spoken, the film moves at break-neck speed.
The spliced-in documentary footage is more enriching than it is distracting, the director thoughtfully choosing when and how to insert footage to help move the story forward. As the more awkward details of the plan are addressed in the scripted version, it is fascinating to see how the real perpetrators begin to squirm as they recount their experiences.
“Animals” isn’t just a retelling of an incredible true story, Layton has created a unique style of heist movie that is not only exciting, nerve-wracking, and highly rewarding, it shows the real-life effects and consequences of committing a crime. It’s a delightful combination of well-textured characters, humor, and high stakes.
With the exception of only a few scenes, the movie takes place in the small community of Lexington, Kentucky, and its hometown charm adds specific identity. The crew of four does not include any technology wizards, master cat burglars, or security system experts, just four nervous young men who are yearning for a huge “boom” in their life.
Warren, the unofficial ring leader, is played masterfully by Evan Peters, a recognizable talent best known from “American Horror Story.” Peters brings an energy to the role best described as “charismatic chaos.”
On the day of the heist, Warren and Eric, played by Jared Abrahamson, have to subdue the librarian, played by Ann Dowd, and grab all the books on their list before they are caught. This spectacular scene is stupid thief excitement at its best. The two scream at each other, terrified for their lives, trying to get as many items as they can before their hearts explode.
Layton had an incredible story to start with, but he found a way to weave two genres and make it uniquely thrilling. Hearing from the real thieves while watching their counterparts relive the incredible day satisfied a craving for “more story” that is inevitably associated with movies based on real people.
The question of redemption for Warren, Spencer, Eric, and Chas becomes inevitable. As they now appear on camera, in a movie, retelling the story with a funny twist, it is easy to forget that they all committed a serious crime. They bound, gagged, and terrified a middle-aged librarian, lied to their families, and took things that didn’t belong to them. It’s easy to look at them now and laugh along with their antics, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
Layton made the correct choice to make “American Animals” a fun time for the audience instead of a lesson in morality, however. It is never completely clear whether the four are protagonists or antagonists, but it is impossible not to be excited by their scheming. “Animals” has been described as “docu-fiction,” but history will prove this is a heist film for the ages.