Four naive young men in their early twenties. One hairbrained, pot-fuelled plan to steal and sell a priceless book. What could go wrong? Everything, if American Animals is anything to go by.
Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) features as Spencer Reinhard, a college student bored of his boring life writing essays, painting in his tiny dormroom, and stacking shelves at his menial job. Real-life Spencer Reinhard also stars as Reinhard – older, wiser and meaker after living through the events played out over the next 116 minutes. You see, American Animals isn’t ‘based on a true story’. It is a true story. We get the full force, true life, prison-weary reality, as talking head interviews with our main players are cut amongst the sensational dramatic retelling, starring Keoghan, Evan Peters (as Warren Lipka), Jared Abrahamson (as Eric Borsuk), and Blake Jenner (as Chas Allen).
After a tour of his college library, Reinhard tells Lipka about John James Audubon’s ‘The Birds of America’, an extremely valuable and rare book housed there. Lipka remembers it differently, and tells us so in his interview – he says Reinhard dropped a not-so-subtle hint about the book and how much it’s worth. Reinhard, of course, disagrees with this. We then see Peters’ Lipka hatch a plan to prise the book from its glass display case, carrying it out of the building to then sell on the European black market. With Borsuk as the logistics man, Allen as the getaway driver, and enough liquid latex to turn these four young men into innocent, wrinkled geriatrics, this should’ve been the easiest heist ever. Simple, right?
As someone coming into American Animals unaware of director Bart Layton‘s previous hit The Imposter and his interesting choice of storytelling techniques, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on the edge of my seat for the majority of the film. Layton’s eye for whipsmart editing, cutting quickly between his actors and interviewees, the differences between the ‘narrative truth’ and what our real-life foursome claim really happened, is genius. Layton gently plays the men off against each other, each telling their own version of events, each with their own idea of who the mastermind was. Keep an eye out for a particularly smooth scene shot in one take, as Peters narrates the imaginary plan of how to extract the book all in one fell swoop, as he, Keoghan and Abrahamson glide around the library, similar to a beautifully choreographed dance number.
Peters, probably best known for his recurring starring role in hit TV series American Horror Story, is on top form. Nearly always stoned, eyes bugging, mind whirring, his depiction of Lipka is of a sly, intelligent, inspired man, looking to make a quick buck and happy to place the blame on anyone but himself. Real-life Lipka is high-cheekboned, shaggy-haired, and emotional when telling his side of the story. Crocodile tears? Maybe. Keoghan plays the mild-mannerd Reinhard, a stark contrast to Peters’ loudmouth Lipka. Will we ever find out who the true mastermind was? Who knows.
Featuring such a strong cast, a killer soundtrack (including my favourite – Hello’s ‘New York Groove’), and a gripping story to boot, you’d be wild to miss American Animals.