The Movie Waffler New Release Review - AMERICAN ANIMALS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - AMERICAN ANIMALS

Docudrama exploration of a real life 2004 heist.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Bart Layton

Starring: Ann Dowd, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier,  Jared Abrahamson


In 2004, four young college students in the US city of Lexington, Kentucky set in motion a plan to steal a collection of rare and close to priceless books from the library at the city's somewhat ominously named Transylvania University; the centrepiece of the collection being a weighty copy of John James Audubon's lavishly illustrated 'The Birds of America'.

Filmmaker Bart Layton, who burst onto the scene with his gripping 2012 true crime documentary The Imposter, proves himself an expert storyteller in his first narrative film, albeit one that heavily features elements of the documentary form.


Along with the dramatic (and boy is it dramatic) recreation of the planning, execution and subsequent fallout of the heist that makes up the bulk of the film, Layton intercuts the drama with talking heads segments featuring the real life personalities involved, and at times he even adds them into the drama, interacting with the actors portraying them onscreen.

Like the protagonists of any good heist movie, the young quartet of criminals here each bring distinct talents and personality traits to the table. Level-headed Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is the one who sets the plan in motion, following a guided tour of the University's prestigious library. When he tells his hot-headed, handsome wastrel friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) of the value of the books (Audubon's tome alone is valued at a whopping $12 million), Lipka immediately convinces him they can pull off a theft. They'll need help however, and that comes in the form of Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), the brains of the bunch, who figures out the logistics of the heist; and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), the gang's getaway driver.


If you've ever seen a heist movie, you'll know nothing ever goes as smoothly as our confident and arrogant anti-heroes would like. It's not a spoiler to say the heist at the centre of American Animals doesn't go to plan, as this is made obvious by the presence of the four real life perpetrators of the crime in Layton's film. I've always maintained that a well told story is impossible to spoil, as what happens isn't as important as how the storyteller portrays the event, and American Animals is further confirmation of this stance. Despite knowing the fate of the film's protagonists, you'll find your nails digging into your cinema seat as Layton pulls off relatively low-key but remarkably tense set-pieces.

The presence of the real-life robbers - whose faces grow increasingly glum the deeper into their story they return - adds a sense of doom to the proceedings, making the narrative recreation all the more tense. All four have somewhat different takes on the event, with blames and mistrust being passed around among the quartet, and they each seem to be affected by the outcome in varying degrees. Lipka, with his shit-eating grin, maintains a bravado throughout his interview, eventually cracking towards the end. The others are far more stoic, their faces riddled with regret and remorse.


If ever a movie was suitable for screening in schools as part of some 'scared straight' programme, it's Layton's, which deglamourises the crime genre to focus on the tragic aftermath of the young men's actions. While nobody suffered any physical violence and all four survived to tell their story, it's clear the lives of everyone involved have changed irreparably. Layton opens his film not with his protagonists, but with their real-life parents, a portrait of familial shame. Watching Lipka's estranged Dad break down in tears is far more upsetting than anything that might have happened to his son in prison.

A key figure in the narrative is Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), the university's head librarian and the chief obstacle standing in the way of the young gang's plot. Lipka tells his comrades she'll be easy to deal with, but her presence haunts the other three men, who are terrified by the lengths Lipka may go to in order to neutralise her. Watching the aging librarian repeatedly shout "Why? Why?" at her young attackers is one of the most disturbing experiences I've ever had in a cinema, not because she's being subjected to any particularly aggressive physical abuse, but because she's suddenly been confronted with a side of the world she managed to evade throughout her life, one she simply can't comprehend. American Animals makes clear that there's no such thing as a victimless crime, and the greatest victim is always innocence.

American Animals is in UK/ROI cinemas September 7th.