This review may or may not be based on a true film. It will depict what I remember to be achievements and flaws with a coming-of-age heist thriller, or at least what I can piece together a few hours after screening. And my review will contain a mostly honest assessment of my moviegoing experience, even though my opinion may have been influenced by hype from my peers. I wouldn’t lie to you.
Here’s what we know to be fact. Back in 2004 at Kentucky’s fictional sounding Transylvania University, four reasonably intelligent and talented young men conspired to steal the most valuable book in the world from the university’s library. Whether the book, more a collection of rare paintings from one man than an actual page-turner you could cozy up in a rocking chair with, was actually the single most valuable book in existence is questionable. But these four men, now carrying a life wisdom that only 7+ years in the slammer could bring, proclaim their stories and lessons to be truth, even if their memories were fuzzy.
“American Animals” stars Evan Peters as the younger version of Warren Lipka. The real Lipka tells us there was no ring leader of the group, but Peters’ charismatic control of the group paints him as the clear robber numero uno. Barry Keoghan plays the younger Spencer Reinhard, who at college age was the milder, pot-smoking best bro of Lipka, although he seems much more distant from his former friend nowadays. While on a library tour at school, Reinhard learns his university houses the world’s most valuable book. After sharing this info with Lipka, an idealistic University of Kentucky undergrad with a penchant for petty thievery, Lipka is inspired to swipe the book. The two supposedly travel to New York to get the info of black market dealers who’ll purchase a stolen artistic artifact, with Lipka allegedly flying solo to Amsterdam to meet with specific buyers. As Lipka and Reinhard nail out the heist nitty gritty, they recruit the well-off athlete Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and the loner accounting major/FBI wannabe Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson).
It’s questionable how the heist happened or who was responsible for what, but what’s palpable is the overwhelming sense of regret and dread each character feels before the heist even takes place. The book is valued in the millions, but the boys dawdle sharing their dreams and hopes for how they’ll spend the money. They’re all united more by the common drive of wanting to do something important and legendary, the unshakable urge to have a life that’s unordinary and a reckless commitment to anything that will provide that. They’re college students who over-invest in their existential freshman phase, consumed by the belief that their already decent lives will never get any better than they are at this moment.
Bart Layton wrote and directed the film, his script and camerawork reflecting excitement and dread in every frame. One sequence in particular, where Lipka, Reinhard and Borsuk are imagining how they’ll taser the book’s caretaker Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), has Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” playing in the background, clearly poking fun at the flashy montage sequences seen in playful heists flicks like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Snatch.” But Layton uses the sequence to reflect how the boys clearly want to be in the after stages of thievery, sipping on beers in some Lexington bar as they reminisce about a job well done. When Lipka suggests that each of them adopt the same colored-code names used in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” Chas notes that the idea is pointless since they already know each other’s real names. But Lipka can’t listen, already stuck in a mental trance imagining himself as a black-suited Tarantino criminal.
Every performance feels honest and authentic, with Peters and Keoghan delivering the best of the movie. Watching Peters as Lipka will make you flashback to hanging out with your cooler, dangerous, more articulate friend who could convince everyone he slept with the hottest girl at school (even the girl, too), just because he said so. And Keoghan shines as the reluctant Reinhard, grappling with the torment of knowing this plan will fail, that he will hurt his family and destroy his future, but seemingly unable to acknowledge the power of saying no. The story seems too crazy to be true, but when you think about just how impressionable and immensely bored privileged college students are, and you’ll wonder why these stories don’t happen more often. Or it could all just be bullshit; we just have to take these guys at their word.