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  • Articles by Sonali

    Film review: American Animals

    American Animals is a heist film with a difference. Set in Kentucky, the story involves the theft of rare books from Transylvania University Library by four college students. The bold introduction states that the film isn’t based on a true story. It is a true story.

    In 2004, college buddies Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk attempt to steal extremely rare books: ‘Birds of America’ by James Audubon and a first edition of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. Together they focus on this ‘get rich quick scheme’ instead of their coursework. They are also driven by a desire for notoriety, to do “that thing that could make your life special”.

    Director Bart Layton opts for a mix of drama and documentary. Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters play nineteen-year-old Spencer and Warren respectively, recreating the crime. The film also cuts to interviews with the real-life Spencer, Warren, Chas and Eric (ashamed, reformed and wiser now) and their parents. Layton contacted the group about making the film while they were in still in prison. They each provide commentary, criticising the motivations and actions of their younger selves. They also provide conflicting accounts of what actually happened.

    This docu-drama format works in terms of the film’s flow although the real Spencer and Warren are more charismatic and eloquent than the actors are. The film does lag midway through when the dialogue is slow and awkward.  

    The moral overtones are pronounced here, so much so that American Animals is more of an angsty ‘anti-heist’ film. Spencer nearly abandons the plan. Warren apologizes effusively to librarian Miss Gooch (Anne Dowd) who is stunned and gagged during the robbery. They make themselves sick with guilt afterwards. We listen to testimony from their distraught parents.

    Apparently, the group viewed heist films like Snatch and Reservoir Dogs beforehand in preparation for the crime. But their execution is botched. American Animals parodies the slickness and sophistication of films from the genre such as Ocean’s Eleven and, in fact, the actual bungled heist sequence is a highlight because it feels so true to life, although hard to watch.

    At the end we learn that Spencer, Warren, Eric and Chas have moved on with their lives. Miss Gooch is slowly recovering from her trauma. You’re left wondering what was the point to this film? Is there any? It does speak of a moral decline though. The boys choose a criminal path, and the impending 2008 global financial crisis gives it a wider context.

    Miss Gooch remarks they were “four kids who didn’t want to work for a transformative experience.” American Animals has a disquieting effect, leaving us feeling uneasy.


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