American Animals (2018)
Written & Directed by Bart Layton
In 2004, a group of college students in Lexington, Kentucky attempted to steal a rare and valuable edition of John James Audobon’s Birds of America. Over the course of a year, they mapped out the entire library where the book was kept, traveled to New York to meet with a fence, went to the Netherlands to set up a potential buyer, and developed an intricate getaway plan. But, did they actually do all of this? And why do some of them remember it in drastically different ways than others? In this clever weaving of re-enactment and documentary confessional, we see the real-life thieves and their actor counterparts lay out the story of a bizarre and seemingly hopeless heist.
American Animals felt like a redundant heist film from the few trailers I saw when it came out in theaters, so I passed it by. Recently it has been getting much buzz as a great movie from this year, in particular, John Waters end of the year film list placed it at number two. So I decided to sit down and watch to see what the hype was about and found a very intelligent film that presents both a play on genre and structure while making some significant statements about the nature of white male privilege in America. That latter point could be a turn off to some audiences, but I would implore you to not pass the picture by. It is never didactic in the way it develops its themes, but if you are a thoughtful viewer, it would be hard not to walk away thinking about the selfishness inherent in the protagonists and how their gender and race did play a part, whether they will admit it or not.
The first thing you need to know is that all four men are free, walking about in public as if nothing ever happened. I won’t go into what happened to them after the heist, but as of 2018, they are potentially your neighbors. There is a moment in the planning where the issue of the librarian, played by the wonderful Ann Dowd, comes up. The boys need to figure out how to deal with her because, as is the nature of this secure unique collection, she must be in the presence of the book at all times. It’s apparent none of them want to hurt her, but they have locked themselves into the plan so deeply that removing her from the situation is just an ugly reality they have to work through.
Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), an art student who comes from a well-off upper-middle-class family is the first character get the spark of steal Birds of America in his head. It’s born out of his post-adolescent ennui and the romanticized cliche of the “starving, struggling artist.” Reinhard has no hardship, and thus he needs to “live dangerously” so he can struggle. Lipka (Evan Peters) has a full ride football scholarship at the University of Kentucky. His home life is not quite as a comfortable as Reinhard’s, but he has decided to reject the path his father has put him on. It doesn’t help that in the midst of his rebellion, Lipka’s mother leaves turning his father into a sobbing emasculate mess in his son’s eyes. Lipka buys into the twisted sense of nihilistic masculinity a lot of late teenage college students find themselves contemplating. Honestly, he reminded me of some people I knew in college who were always playing around at ways to make lots of money quickly or plan ludicrous things like the book heist in this film.
American Animals is not a movie about glorifying a heist. It is very stylized but with a larger purpose than you realize when the film starts. Cutting to the real men behind this story continually grounds us when the movie makes you think it’s getting too full of itself. Potentially cool scenes of clandestine park meetings in New York City with representatives of an international fence are interrupted by contradictory testimonies between the real Reinhard and Lipka. They misremember details as small as the color of a scarf and as significant as what the man they were meeting up with looked like. Near the end of the picture, the real Reinhard talks about the many opportunities they had along the way to stop and not do this. He simply sat back and assumed there would come a natural where it would happen, where the whole plan would crumble. This is a heist that occurred because the people involved just supposed reality would break their fantasy before it harmed them or anyone else.