There isn’t anything particularly interesting about the crime committed in “American Animals.”
Some college kids want to steal rare books from their school’s library. Taking care of the woman who works in the room where the rare collections are housed could prove tricky, but other than that, it’s a pretty straightforward caper story.
What makes the film so intriguing is the way writer-director Bart Layton tells it.
As the film begins, we see the familiar words “This is based on a true story.” Then the words “is based on” disappear. This, then, is a true story.
Sort of. It depends on whose version of it you’re hearing.
Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is an aspiring artist and college student at Transylvania University, where he sees John James Audubon’s famous, and exceptionally rare, “Birds of America,” worth nearly $12 million.
That’s a lot of money for a college student. Or anyone else.
Spencer isn’t a thief, but he thinks he hasn’t really had sufficient adventure in his life to feed his artistic creativity. He talks about this with his lifelong friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of guy, who decides that yes, they need to do this. They must do this. They absolutely will do this.
They have no idea how to do this.
But that doesn’t stop them. How to prepare? By Googling how to rob a bank and watching heist movies, of course. They also enlist a couple more friends, after Warren says, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” Of course he does. Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) come on board. Soon they have a plan that includes absurd old-man disguises and color-coded fake names, like in “Reservoir Dogs,” among other things.
They have to learn what a fence is so they can sell the books. Most importantly, they have to figure out what to do about Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), who works in the rare-collections room. Take her out with a Taser seems to be the agreed-upon plan.
What could possibly go wrong?
What couldn’t, more like. This isn’t “Ocean’s 11” (one of the films they watch to prepare), where everything goes according to plan. This is more like amateur hour at the criminal club.
But here’s what makes the movie more than the typical goofy crime-gone-wrong story. Layton, a former documentarian, splices in interviews with the real guys. At one point one sits beside the actor playing him in a car, talking about what they recall about the action that’s taking place.
More often they’re just interviewed on camera about what they did and why they did it — and what they remember.
That’s the tricky part. Everyone’s story is different. Layton has included four unreliable narrators, and then tells the story, or stories, they tell. For instance, when they meet a man who might be a fence for them, Spencer remembers him looking one way. Warren remembers it another way. We see both versions, and it’s not clear which one, if either, is telling the truth.
A few consistencies emerge. One is that all of them blame Warren — except, of course, for Warren. Also, you can tell when you first see them they think they’re nothing like the dopey amateurs in over their heads we see in the film. And you can tell after about 10 seconds that they are exactly like the dopey amateurs in over their heads we see in the film.
Thanks to Layton’s filmmaking choices, “American Animals” ends up being not so much a crime movie as an examination of truth and memory, as well as blame and responsibility. And it’s a lot better for it.
The Orchard presents a film written and directed by Bart Layton. Rated R (for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material). Running time: 116 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.