In the Special Collections room of the Transylvania University Library, guarded by a small amount of plexiglass and an elderly librarian, sits some of the most valuable books and manuscripts in America. American Animals is based on the unbelievably true story that was dubbed the ‘Transy Book Heist’ back in 2004. College freshmen Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), dissatisfied with their lot in life (be that mundane privilege or a dysfunctional family life), rope Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) into a plot to steal millions of dollars worth of rare books. Their target – the first edition of Birds of America by John James Audubon, featuring paintings by the acclaimed wildlife pioneer valued at around $12 million, along with other incredibly rare and valuable books including Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Between four college kids and millions of dollars stand a single librarian, Betty Jean ‘BJ’ Gooch (Ann Dowd), and a couple of locks. Seems too easy, right?
Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is a postmodern real crime docu-drama in the same vain as I, Tonya (2017). The film is self-aware, playing with truth and authenticity, backtracking on its own words. Layton presents multiple sides of the story so as to emulate the ambiguity of human memory.
Do yourself a favour and don’t research the story before you go and see the film, as it will ruin the suspense. The best part is going in unaware and not knowing how or whether they will actually pull off the deceptively simple heist.
American Animals consists of interviews with the real perpetrators, their families and the victimised librarian, who narrate the story to the best of their knowledge, spliced between a dramatised retelling of the heist. It’s debatable how unprompted the interviews with the real people are, but they feel almost too well put-together to be entirely genuine.
The soundtrack is powerful, as is the cinematography, which is a mash-up between documentary style and modern drama. The film is gripping, suspenseful from start to finish, and continues to up the ante right until the end – exactly what you want from this genre of film. The acting and interview performances are commendable, visceral, and the audience starts to sympathise with these confused young men who find themselves quickly out of their depth.
What is most commendable is that the film doesn’t valorise the excitement or glory of a heist. The perpetrators, with big dreams, a few dodgy connections, little talent in robbery and no experience, go from playing with the idea of theft to crossing a line from which there is no return. The tone is tense the whole time, fraught with chances to turn around before it’s too late. The film makes real their discomfort with violence against others, their desire to avoid causing others’ pain, and their regret with the job itself. The heist is rendered very real, and emphasises how translating large-scale crime from Ocean’s 11 and Reservoir Dogs into real-life is never easy, and things don’t go conveniently to plan. In this way, the film is original and takes a step in the direction of a new way of telling crime drama.
I rate this film 9/10.
American Animals is in cinemas from October 4th.