‘American Animals’ combines documentary and drama to explore a real-life art heist

American Animals

FilmScene — opens Friday, June 29 at 6 p.m.

Evan Peters, professional scene-stealer, in ‘American Animals.’ — film still

American Animals, starting a run today at FilmScene, stars Evan Peters of American Horror Story, Barry Keoghan of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Ann Dowd of Hereditary

And surprisingly enough, it’s not a horror movie.

Animals is a crime drama written and directed by Bart Layton, currently in a limited release after premiering at Sundance in January. The film follows a group of four college-age men looking to spice up their life by planning and executing an art heist at the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Their prime target is John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, an extremely rare book of bird drawings for which the robbers hope to catch a multimillion-dollar price. Audubon’s rendering of a curved-necked flamingo is a visual motif throughout American Animals (and on its poster); it’s a note of color and whimsy in a film rife with escalating suspense, as the guys’ ill-conceived heist plans become messy reality.

John James Audubon’s “American Flamingo” from ‘Birds of America.’ — public domain

It may not be a horror movie, but it’s a parent’s nightmare.

The film is based on a true story, a fact presented in a curious way. At the outset, “This is not a true story” appears on the screen, but after a moment, the “no” disappears: “This is a true story” — no “based on” in sight. A bold assertion, vaguely asserted.

American Animals can best be compared to I, Tonya, the award-winning biopic of Tonya Harding released last year, “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” that film declares. I, Tonya cuts back and forth from Harding’s dramatized life to reenactments of presumably real interviews — Margot Robbie plays Harding in both the narrative and the “interviews;” the other actors do double duty as well.

Layton’s film goes further, presumably in the name of drama and accuracy: He intercuts real interviews with the perpetrators of the crime and their parents, a teacher and the librarian working in Special Collections the day of the heist. As in I, Tonya, these interviews provide exposition, character-development and occasional humor, as 30-something men reminisce about their foolhardy past selves with obvious shame and regret. It’s intriguing, and it highlights the skills of the cast — working side-by-side with their real-life counterparts, any failure to capture the mannerisms or vocal inflection of their characters would be obvious and pull the viewer out of the world of the film.

I’ve been eyeing trailers for American Animals for months, as one of millions who have been beguiled by the charming, eccentric and creepy aura of Evan Peters since he played the sweetheart/school shooter/ghost Tate in the first season of American Horror Story. Peters is a scene stealer, whether as Quicksilver in the last two X-Men ensemble films or the blue-haired alt-right cult leader Kai (and Andy Warhol, and Jim Jones, and David Koresh, and Charles Manson, and Marshall Applewhite) in American Horror Story: Cult.

American Animals is no exception — Peters is the central personality, simultaneously compelling and repellant. His character, Warren Lipka — as crazy-haired and unreliable today as he was in college, if his interviews are any indication — provides the bulk of energy in the film; Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan), the Transylvania University art student who plants the seed in Warren’s mind to rob the library, is rather soft-spoken.

Spencer is bored and uninspired. He wants to be like Van Gogh, Monet — tortured artists whose life experiences meant they “knew something” about life Spencer hasn’t found in frat parties or weed smoking. (He could have done with watching Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special Nanette, which tears into the idea that artists need to suffer or cause suffering to create.) Once he and Warren start plotting the robbery, studying old heist movies and drawing up blueprints, his creative juices start flowing.

Little does he know, Warren is serious about this. Warren is searching for meaning as well — he’s on a soccer scholarship but can’t get himself to go to practice, his parents are getting divorced — and planning isn’t enough. He has visions of executing an Ocean’s Eleven-esque operation, donning a slick tux, stunning the librarian (Dowd) with ease and making off with a half-dozen rare and valuable books. Despite the fact millions of dollars are at stake, there’s little talk of what the guys will do with the money. It’s all about the heist, the adventure.

It’s a fantasy plenty of young men have had. American Animals is fascinating as a study of white, middle-class, young American cis-male experience — when you’re directionless, entitled, lack a sense of identity and no longer motivated by the fear of disappointing your parents, what do you do? How do you make your life a story worth reading — or watching onscreen? Spencer suggests the crew dress up as old men when they go to rob the library, because being old is “the closest thing to being invisible.” God forbid they grow up to be invisible.

With the existence of this film, Spencer, Warren and the two friends they recruit for the crime get what they were asking for, but I can’t imagine it’s as sweet as they hoped. It’s obvious they feel bad, but you don’t feel bad for them. Peters’ je ne sais quoi aside, you won’t like any of these characters, and if you do, Layton probably didn’t go far enough in condemning their toxic attitudes and behavior.

Inevitably, Animals gives into some clichés — clueless adults who just don’t understand the youths; the crime team incessantly yelling at each other for dramatic effect; a conflicted character running at night in street clothes, encountering a CGI animal of symbolic significance. But the film is entertaining, if not quite engrossing. It’s a down-to-earth counterpoint to cult heist films like Reservoir Dogs (specifically referenced a couple times in Animals) and perhaps even biopics like I, Tonya that fetishize crime and trauma.

In the golden age of true crime, American Animals manages to inject something different, if not totally new: a bald-faced blurring of fact and fiction, a timely reflection on masculinity and a central crime just stupid enough to be real.

Check FilmScene’s website for showtimes.

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