American Animals (2018)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Bart Layton
Run Time
1 hour and 58 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.
Ecclesiastes 7:29

Writer-director Bart Layton apparently likes to pull our legs: he places the notice at the beginning of his heist film, “This Is Not Based on a True Story.” We have scarcely read this when “Not Based on” drops out of site. And to back up his new claim he has invited the four guys–Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk who plotted to steal valuable books from the poorly guarded rare books room of Transylvania University 15 years ago– to comment on the action.

We also know we are in for something special by opening shots of colorful illustrations of birds of prey intercut with young guys putting on disguises to look older. It is Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), an art student at Transylvania U. who starts the plot rolling because he is bored and wishing for something exciting to enter his dull middle class life. His buddy is the mercurial Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), upset over the pending divorce of his parents and eager for some thrills. When Spencer becomes interested in his college’s copy of John James Audubon’s brilliantly-illustrated Birds of America and a rare copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of The Species, he decides that it would be possible to steal it because of the light security in the library.

The two friends watch heist films, and Spencer uses his artistic skills to make a miniature model of the rare books room which they study, just like in the movies. They go through a complicated process of finding a fence for the $12 million book, which takes them to New York City and, for one of them, to Amsterdam.

They realize the job requires more manpower, so they recruit Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk (played respectively by Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson). The plan calls for two of them to enter the library, knock out librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) with a stun gun, snatch the huge Audubon books and a couple of others and join the other two in a getaway van. After lengthy discussion and preparation, the four almost give up the first day when they arrive at the library and several other men are with Ms. Gooch.

Regaining their nerve the next day, Spencer finds Ms. Gooch alone, but his stun gun failing to knock her out, he has a terrible time manhandling her into submission so that he can tape her mouth shut and tie her up. He and Warren are in panic mode, searching for the key to the glass case, which they cannot smash lest those outside in the reading room hear and see them through the large window. When they do find the key, they are shaking so that they have trouble unlocking the case, and fumble the huge volumes as they try to wrap them up. In the elevator they hit the wrong button, the door opening not onto the basement, but the main floor, where they are spotted. They manage to drop the huge books in the stairwell, so they rush on with just the Darwin volume and a medieval illuminated book. When they make their getaway and travel to New York to try to learn at Christy’s Auction House the value of their two books, Spencer makes an even more fatal mistake—he and his partners in crime make the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight look like consummate professionals.

The film is fun in a perverse sort of way, and the four real life characters question some of the action and make us wonder whose memory is to be trusted as to what happened. Indeed the possibility that Warren faked his trip to Amsterdam is raised. That God may have made human beings straightforward,” as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “but they have devised many schemes.” Indeed!

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August 2018 issue of Visual Parables.


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