By Steven Sheehan.

There’s a moment in American Animals that parodies the slick moves of the Ocean’s heist franchises. Dressed in smart suits four boys breeze through a robbery like experienced pro’s before walking out with the loot.

Except, it is only a fantasy and a far cry from what really went down at Transylvania University back in 2004. News of the attempted heist never made it across the pond to the UK. Yet it was hardly small time.

Their target was a collection of books stored in the university’s library. One of which included a Charles Darwin first edition. The total value of the full set was $12 million. All they had to do was steal them in broad daylight.

American Animals IS a True Story

A scene from American Animals 2018 film showing two men sat at a table in a dark room.

We are told at the very start this is not based on a true story but rather it is a true story. Not only are we shown the dramatized version of events we also hear from the real people involved.

The plan was put together by Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). Both students at the university, they were also disillusioned with what life in further education had to offer.

Once Spencer sees the rare books in the library it plants a seed in their minds that never stops growing. And it isn’t long before fellow students Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) are roped in to help.

As we build up to the heist, director Bart Layton continues to cut back to the now grown-up men reflecting on events. Their memories of what happened rarely match up and allow Layton to have some fun with the plot.

People they meet, the clothes they wore and things that were said chop and change. The end result is still the same but the finger of blame has slowly shifted over time.

No Regret for their Actions

Scene from American Animals film 2018 showing a bare chested man holding his hands up in a dark room.

The four men show no shortage of regret for their actions although the reasons for the crime remain elusive. Even at two hours long Layton sticks with the hows rather than explaining the whys.

The four boys are cast well with Keoghan and Peters standing out in particular. The power dynamic between the two slowly changes the closer they get to the heist.

Where Spencer’s doubts start to grow Warren’s desperation comes to the fore. We already know it will end in tears but watching them experience it is worth the wait.

American Animals could definitely be a little leaner. It peaks at the heist and meanders towards a long drawn out ending. Losing about 15 minutes would’ve kept the story far more concise.

Layton has visual flair to spare and largely keeps the tone light and involving. It works as a feature film/documentary hybrid to create a different approach compared to most heist movies.

He used a similar style in his last film The Imposter. Layton has a knack for picking out peculiar real-life stories that are small-scale but told with panache.

Final Thoughts

This time around it’s hard to find the moral in American Animals. But perhaps there isn’t one. It might just be a dumb decision they’ll always regret. Or maybe it’s just remorse because they didn’t get away with it.

American Animals is released in cinemas on September 7th.

American Animals Movie Poster

Photo by The Orchard & Moviepass Ventures