When it comes to movies, I am continually reminded of the fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Such is the case with Bart Layton’s “American Animals,” the movie about a book heist from the small liberal arts college Transylvania University located in Lexington, KY. 4 young students learn of a valuable and relatively unprotected book collection authored by James Audubon on display at the University’s library. Together, the four plot “the perfect heist” using Quentin Tarantino’s movies as a guide. It quickly becomes a sad comedy of errors, forever effecting their lives and futures.
We meet Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) as he is interviewing to attend this small university. He’s a sweet and gifted artist struggling to find his inner-purpose and motivation in the art world. Warren, a long-time friend who Spencer’s parents disapprove, is the college jock; a talented athlete, but not exactly an academic. Spencer, after visiting the library’s special Audubon exhibit, plants the seed of theft in Warren’s mind who then focuses all his energy on devising a plan. Watching movies, googling information from a University of Kentucky computer, he makes the plan come to fruition. Spencer, always hesitating, but never fully resisting, reaches out to two other friends with skills they need to complete the heist. As D-Day approaches, it’s obvious that the group isn’t exactly “Oceans 11” precise.
“American Animals” is an exquisite portrayal of youth, greed, and impulsivity, documenting the psychology of what happens in a group setting and making one bad decision after another. The film seamlessly incorporates the narrative story with interviews with the real main characters, professors, and parents. We get to really know these boys as they make error after error, knowing they should stop, but all it takes is Warren, the strongest of the group, to keep them going. The pain you hear in their words and see in their eyes as actors is punctuated by the exact same emotions emitted from the real characters.
As you first learn what these kids are planning, you wonder to yourself how could they possibly think it was a good idea. And that’s exactly what filmmaker Bart Layton is able to do—-take us through the steps, the interactions, and the entire process that got them to the final point. It’s an extraordinary feat of filmmaking and story telling to give such insight while still entertaining the viewer. Layton sets up the situation flawlessly, building mountains of tension as you ready youself for the craziness that’s about to come.
Keoghan portrays Spencer, an innocent and generally thoughtful young man. All of the actors portrayed their respective characters with skill and heart. The actors allowed you to know that they were conflicted, but greed got the better of them all. The panic set in at different points for each of them, depending upon their moral compass, but it was breathtakingly painful as we observed their dilemma. The performances were so engaging that as a viewer you wanted to help them make better decisions. You felt that they were good kids at heart, but knowing this wasn’t going to end well. Evan Peters deep and agitated performance as “Warren” shows us how he could lead the others astray.
Yes, truth is stranger than fiction and while there are plenty of movies out there that capitalize on these stories, “American Animals” tells their tale in a brilliantly creative and novel way, adding authenticity and heart to this film and creating a captivatingly heartbreaking story of greed, immaturity, and impulsivity.
If you’re in the Chicago area, “American Animals” opens at the Music Box Theatre.