By: Kevin Jordan
Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?
When I was a kid, my parents watched America’s Most Wanted with John Walsh. Episodes featured cheap reenactments of crimes committed by featured suspects to give the audience something to watch besides Mr. Walsh talking, even though that something to watch had the cinematic quality of anthropomorphic finger paintings. American Animals is what would happen if America’s Most Wanted had spent the entire series’ budget on a single episode.
American Animals is not just a movie based on real events, but depicts the events of 2004’s Transy Book Heist in a hybrid reenactment/documentary film. The heist involved four college students – Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) – attempting to steal a bunch of rare books and manuscripts from the rare book collection housed in the library of Transylvania University. The craziest thing about the ordeal is that Transylvania University is an actual university in Lexington, Kentucky, that has exactly zero vampires (unconfirmed).
Supernatural aside, the thing that interested most people at the time was the motivation of the four men. In interviews shortly after their incarceration, they stated that they wanted to ensure that their lives would not take them down the dreary and rote suburbanite path of their families. They reasoned that if they were successful, they would be rich and living in Europe, and if they failed, they would go to jail and would lose the opportunities of suburbia. It is also worth noting that all four kids were middle-to-upper-middle-class, were all regarded very highly in their communities, successful students and athletes, and had done everything right (by societal standards) up until college. These were not the clichéd criminals whose neighbors state on television how they were just the nicest boys because those neighbors refused or ignored all of the red flags; they really were the nicest boys.
Normally, I do not get into documentaries unless I am really interested in the subject matter, so I would like to request that all future documentaries be filmed in this reenactment style. The film does not just do a reenactment with interview clips spliced throughout, but transitions during scenes between the actors playing the four men and the actual four men themselves reciting lines, sometime in the middle of a sentence. For example, Peters will be delivering a sentence and Lipka will finish it. And it is not just dialogue, but reactions or emotions. Toward the end, there is a scene where the characters are reflecting on their actions and the movie cuts to the real men sitting in silence, also reflecting back on what they did. It is a really cool piece of direction and successfully draws sympathy from the audience, regardless of how much sympathy these men deserve.
As interesting as the heist is itself, the most compelling part of this film is how the story is told. Most of the movie is told from the point of view of Warren and Spencer, but their memories of some parts of it are fuzzy. At times, Spencer notes that he is not sure if what he remembers is his own memory or what Warren remembers of it and told to Spencer in past recalls. The film depicts the discrepancies, showing us both versions (was it a younger guy with a green scarf or an older guy with a blue scarf?), which adds some mystery to events. This is important for the character development, because Warren is the leader and driving force of the heist and he is the one of the four who the audience trusts the least. It is a brilliant bit of filmmaking (nice work director/writer Bart Layton) that makes this film so much more than just a special episode of Cops.
Most of the movies I have watched this year are the big, loud, blockbusters, so American Animals is a very pleasant change of pace, despite it being a heist movie. Even though we know almost from the beginning that the boys ultimately fail, the film has plenty of tension because we do not know how far they get before failing. But, the main reason to watch is to find out how they fail because it is obvious that they have no idea what they are doing (they literally watched Ocean’s Eleven, Snatch, and Reservoir Dogs as research), though they make a very good attempt. If anything, you will watch for the same reason you watched those episodes of America’s Most Wanted, but you will not have to endure acting and production values that look like they came from a junior high in actual Transylvania.
Rating: Ask for zero dollars back because a movie that makes you feel a little bad for four wealthy kids with no troubles in life is definitely worth seeing once.