American Animals: The True Tale of College Boys and a Major Art Heist

Photos courtesy of Sundance

American Animals, currently playing at the Landmark Theaters, just over the Culver City border in West Los Angeles, is the best kind of “based-on-a-true-story” movie. It provides backstory, the “actual” story, as well as a glimpse of the real players in the audacious art crime. The logical narrative is clear in this heist film, as ill-conceived as the actual theft was.

Four middle-class suburban friends from Kentucky’s Transylvania University band together to infiltrate a museum-like library room, which happens to house some very rare, very valuable and very large books (namely John James Audebon’s Birds of America). Warren Lipka (played in American Animals by American Horror Story’s Evan Peters) devises a plan to steal from the special collections room of the college library. Warren’s best friend Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is seeking relevancy in the world (not unlike a faction of Culver City). And Spencer wants to devise a way to be unique, tobe remembered. Warren convinces Spencer that the theft of multi-million dollar art books is key.

Photos courtesy of Sundance

Using plot lines from favorite heist movies, and a rather loosely constructed, albeit elaborate plan, Warren and Spencer bring in two other friends, Eric, an accounting major (played by Jared Abrahamson) and a cynical gym rat, Chas (Blake Jenner). Needless to say, it doesn’t unfold as they imagined. Of course, these guys are thinking “Goodfellas” and “Reservoir Dogs,” but what they get is amateurish and stuttering.

What makes British director and screenplay writer Bart Layton’s film work is how well it’s crafted, how the personalities and backgrounds of the leads evolve. Their motivations are clear, if their plan is not. There’s some clever filmmaking in which voice-over narration, directly from the real-life guy’s perspective describes a visual, happening the way it actually did (or did it? The idea of revisionist memories and varying recollections is well explored).

Because it’s basically a true story, the constructs are limited to the (mostly) facts, but it, in no way, hinders the entertainment factor, and rather it lends to the credibility. Despite the fact that American Animals, is, at its core, a movie about four young men who made some very bad decisions, it proves poignant, quite funny, and makes for a very good movie.