American Animals (Movie Review)

Most people can look back on their past and point to the one moment that was crucial in getting them where they are today; clearly, a single moment can shape a life in the most dramatic way. What happens when patience wears thin and that moment is manufactured? In December of 2004, four college kids decided to pull off the ultimate moment and steal priceless rare art and books from Transylvania University’s library. The new film American Animals details their story, and it arrives to theaters on June 1, 2018, thanks to The Orchard.

American Animals still.

Warren Lipka (Evan Peters: American Horror Story series, X-Men: Apocalypse 2016) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan: The Killing of a Sacred Deer 2017, Dunkirk 2017) are childhood friends in the beginning of their adult lives. Warren is in college on an athletic scholarship, while Spencer is more focused on art. Both appear to have a longing for something more than their privileged lives have provided thus far. When Spencer takes a freshman tour of Transylvania University’s library, he is shown the rare book room, and becomes fascinated with the first edition of the Birds of America by John James Audubon.

As the pair begin to discuss the insanely high price tags of rare books and how easy it would be to steal them, they begin to start planning a heist. Of course, figuring out how to take the books is not the only issue: where and whom to sell them to is crucial to the entire plan. Using the alias Walter Beckman, Warren attempts to create contacts to sell the books, and trips to New York and Amsterdam become part of the complicated process to secure payment. Realizing that they need more help, the pair recruit their friends Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson: Hello Destroyer 2016, Travelers series) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner: Glee series, The Edge of Seventeen 2016).

Now a foursome, with the help of a lot of weed the guys begin to fully realize and piece their plan together. The only obstacle in their path is the librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd: Garden State 2004, The Handmaid’s Tale series); other than locked doors and cabinets, she is the only thing standing in the way of their dreams of fortune. None want to hurt her but they all understand that something must be done, otherwise their plans will never go anywhere. Ultimately, will they finally achieve the life-altering moment they are all desperate to have, and, if so, will this one moment change their lives forever?

American Animals

American Animals is filmed in a unique way, such that there are really two films overlapping one another – the perfect Hollywood Crime-Thriller and the slightly restrained but deeply intriguing Documentary diving into real life. It is easy to forget that this film is based on a true story, as most films discussing true events simply tell one version of events and that is the one that is remembered through time.

American Animals slices in interviews and views from those involved with this art heist (all four boys, their families, and the librarian), and despite their often being disagreements with how events unfolded, both viewpoints are shown to the audience. This helps to create doubt in where an idea came from and who was really leading the charge. The heist happened, there is no disputing that, but it is the details, the minor moves that are useful to gain insight into the situation. The differing recollections create a type of confusion and solidify the idea that there is not just one story to tell. In turn, this makes the viewer question every player involved and what actually happened, while allowing for all four boys to be seen as humans and not mere cogs in an event in history.

One glaring discrepancy in recollection is exactly who came up with the plan, and neither Spencer nor Warren can even agree on where the idea was first discussed. One says it was at a party, while the other suggests it happened in the car at a gas station; the only thing both agree is that it was cold and they were wearing jackets. In the real world, knowing the identity of the mastermind helps with sentencing and potential plea deals, while in films, it helps pin down the personality and the reason why something ultimately happened. Ultimately, it gives the viewer someone to blame.

American Animals

Here, the real Spencer points to Warren. Though, Warren would not have known about the books if it were not for Spencer, though his friend claims he was just blowing off steam and joking about heisting these rarities. It is suggested that it was Warren who took the joke and turned it serious, and the film appears to agree with this. Therefore, Warren seems to take the physical lead in the plot: he is loud and the one who engages in most of the planning. Similarly, he is the only one who appears to have the feeling of any type of control as the others just follow along and listen to his plans.

However, conversely, Warren himself casts doubt about this, suggesting that there was not a ring leader and the group were all in it together. At one point, he is told that Spencer recalls an event’s details differently, and Warren thinks this odd, but says whatever Spencer says he will go with. This is not the attitude of a ruthless mastermind, but rather, this feels like someone who is willing to blindly follow a friend. Whether intentional or not, Spencer actually comes across as the quiet yet manipulative puppet-master commanding the short-fused, action-based dreamer that is Warren.

Casting here is spot on. When flipping back and forth between the real players in the heist and the actors portraying them, there is no question on which character is who. Peters portrays Warren as a deeply-depressed kid who is outwardly spontaneous and willing to do what it takes to break free of monotony. There is a depth and complexity in Peters’ portrayal, and his Warren cares deeply about those around him but becomes so manic he cannot see past himself or the ideas that get stuck in his head. Keoghan’s Spencer is way more subdued than Warren, but is played in a way that it makes sense that someone like him became involved in this crime. He comes across as quiet and reserved, but manipulative in directing Warren around. Keoghan and Peters have such an explosive dynamic that the push-and-pull relationship they are reenacting feels genuine, and it helps add pieces to the puzzle that remain missing about the heist.

American Animals

There is a belief that if a person wants to change their situation or life then action must be taken. Often times when a person feels that life is not happening fast enough, decisions are made without fully realizing the consequences. It is easy to talk about pulling off a huge art heist, making millions, and living happily, richer after, but bringing this criminal dream to fruition is a much different animal. Afterall, in the real world, consequences are, well, real, and there are no true victimless crimes.

American Animals successfully provides the viewer with an engaging crime story, while simultaneously proving that every action can have profound lasting effects on all the players involved. With an impassioned cast and a complex but aptly-written script, the film gives the viewer much more than what a straightforward documentary ever could. It is for these reasons that CrypticRock gives American Animals 4.5 of 5 stars.

The Orchard

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