SXSW Film Review – American Animals
It was not until the director, and writer Bart Layton walked onto the stage at the Paramount Theater at SXSW 2018 and his previous film, The Imposter, was mentioned that I realized what exactly kind of film I was about to see. If you are picking up on a trend in my reviews, it is that I don’t do my research. I just picked the film because that creepy kid from The Killing of a Sacred Deer is in it and it sounded interesting. With the intriguing documentary The Imposter in his back pocket, Bart Layton was about to unleash the next step in his filmmaking journey.
American Animals is a docudrama focused on a heist pulled off by four college kids in 2004. The heist centered on stealing rare books from the Transylvania University library. Central to this crime was stealing a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, along with other rare books kept in this secure area of the library. Considering this is an idea cooked up by college kids, there are plenty of follies to their plan. We are introduced to the central players in this true story one by one as they enter the so-called foolproof plan. Evan Peters portrays Warren Lipka, the ringleader, and Barry Keoghan is Spencer Reinhard, whose tour of the special collections at the library sets off the whole scheme. Jared Abrahamson plays Eric Borsuk, the friend that Warren and Spencer realized they needed for logistical reasons, and Blake Jenner plays Chas Allen, the getaway driver, and provider of needed funds. Ann Dowd adds another role to her resumé playing librarian Betty Jean Gooch, the protector of all those priceless books.
The first few minutes of the film solidifies that this is no ordinary tale. With a rumbling score, we see a montage of four young men aging themselves into old men with cutaways to some of Audubon’s drawings of birds of prey. It is all too comedic, but the music and foreshadowing of the drawings lead the audience to believe this is quite a tale to be told if this is where we end up.
Bart Layton has taken his craft one step further with American Animals. The majority of the film is a dramatic recreation, with an artistic license from both Layton and the actors, of what happened. The four real subjects of the film are interviewed throughout the film, introduced in succession of when they became a part of the plan. The central character is Spencer (Keoghan) and the real Spencer, whose interviews we see the most. For some reason, Spencer is friends with this doofus of a guy, Warren (Peters), and he is already doing things that Spencer’s parents of which they don’t approve. Spencer mentions his tour of the special collections at Transylvania library, and the plan to steal what looks like taking candy from a baby is sprung from the mind of Warren.
While Spencer may be the main character, the real star of American Animals is Evan Peters’ Warren and the real Warren Lipka. You can’t make up half the stuff this guy does in the film, and many of the thoughts that come out of his mouth are real gems, both the real and fictionalized Warren. He does some of the most stupid things in this film and the fact that Spencer is friends with him and can’t see through the bulls*** that Warren throws out there is a testament to what a truly good friend Spencer is, or how completely ignorant Spencer is of the world and how it works. There is one brief scene when Evans and Lipka share a moment together, blending fiction and reality, and it brings forth how accurate Evans’ portrayal of him is in the film. At its conclusion, the only complete believer in the ridiculous plan was Warren, and he never seemed to have any doubts about its success rate. The only element that continues to plague Warren’s psyche is the pain that he had put another person through to make it all work, not so much that he will be caught.
While the scheme to steal the rare books may seem impossible, the film moves towards the heist becoming a reality. Unfortunately, the film takes too long to get to the climax and has a pseudo-climax where the audience may think these young men have come to their senses. Unfortunately, this realization does not happen. Layton is thorough with his character development and the intricacies and details of the true story, and by showing all of this (even the absurdly true ones), it diminishes the interest and eagerness to see the payoff.
American Animals is based on a fascinating true story, and this crime was committed by these college kids looking for an easy buck in a very unusual and difficult way. While it may have seen easy initially, the morals and regrets of these young men catch up with them. Too deep in the planning stages to give up, plus the encouragement and foolhardiness of Warren, the heist is completed, just not in the way any of the four of them think it is going to turn out. The after-effects of stealing the books result in the disintegration of who each of these guys thought they were, to themselves and their families. It is all fun and games until the moment of truth and the animalistic, adrenaline-driven instincts to survive come to the surface. The plan may have seemed fun, but the payoff will never be that ever.
American Animals turned out to be the perfect film for SXSW, the unexpected. It is worth seeing for Evan Peters’ entertaining depiction of Warren, plus Bart Layton’s unique blend of drama and documentary.