American Animals: Fact-Based Heist Drama Blurs Fact and Fiction, Comes Up Short

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B-

Impressively assembled if not especially appealing, American Animals is a clever documentary-feature hybrid, which includes both actors and the real-life characters they play.  The story they dramatize, and relate, is of a ridiculous rare-book theft from 2004 that took place in Kentucky. The film was made by British filmmaker Bart Layton, best known for his 2012 documentary about another oddball American crime, The Imposter.

The dramatic part of the story begins with best friends Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an art major at Transylvania University, and Warren (Evan Peters), who’s on a soccer scholarship at the nearby University of Kentucky. The two are bored with school. They sit in Warren’s car and smoke a lot of dope. 

A scene from American Animals.

A scene from American Animals.

One night, Spencer tells Warren that, on a freshman library tour, he saw a copy of John James Audabon’s Birds of America, a book valued at $12 million. Nearby was a first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The boys conclude it wouldn’t be all that difficult to steal those books, which are supervised by the archive’s librarian (Ann Dowd) and a mind-fart released over a joint somehow turns into an actual plan. They bring in two accomplices, the jock Chas (Blake Jenner) as their getaway driver, and introverted accounting student Eric (Jared Abrahamson) as their logistical planner. 

American Animals has echoes of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring — both are about entitled middle-class kids saturated in Hollywood culture, involved in a crime, and both were subjects of Vanity Fair feature articles.  But there’s a key difference in the motives: The kids in The Bling Ring wanted their taste of glamour. The boys in American Animals see their caper as life-changing, one that could rescue them from humdrum middle-class ordinariness. Well, at least Spencer sees it that way.

That puts American Animals in the lineage of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, all fictions inspired by real criminals. How do we know their motives? Throughout the film, the director hits the pause button on the drama to cut to documentary interviews with the four men involved in the heist. 

Caught up in a combination of Hollywood fantasy (they studied heist movies for ideas and dressed in disguises) and eagerness to please the charismatic leader Warren, the boys sought a life-changing moment.

“Transformative” is the surprising word used by the real-life archive librarian B.J. Gooch (you couldn’t invent that name) whom they tasered and bound. They sought transformation but their failure, as she sees it, was that they chose a quick and heartless route.

As entertaining as American Animals is, there’s a troubling disconnect between the feverish attention Layton lavishes on the feelings of the young criminals and the crass inanity of their crime.  This isn’t a case of sympathy for the devil but as empathy for idiots.

American Animals. Directed and written by Bart Layton. Starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson and Ann Dowd. Now playing nationwide, including at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.