Fictitious narratives love to depict criminals as slick, suave and smart individuals who always avoid the watchful eye of authority, forgetting that most felons are dim-witted amateurs who fail to comprehend the consequences of their actions. Sorely missing from these stories is a sense of reality that deglamorises these crooks.
Set in the early 2000s, American Animals centres on Spencer Reinhold (Barry Keoghan), an aspiring artist enrolled at the University of Transylvania in Lexington, Kentucky. When not studying or working at the local supermarket, Spencer can be found taking part in wacky shenanigans, or getting stoned, with best friend Warren Lipka (Evan “Quicksilver” Peters) who attends the nearby University of Kentucky on a scholarship.
Growing tired of college life, the pair dream-up a plan to steal a selection of rare books from Spencer’s university, with the intention of selling them privately. Warren likes the idea, and spends his free time researching how to pull-off the perfect heist; Spencer, who suggested the thought facetiously, goes along with Warren’s charade, believing they are just having fun. Yet Warren is committed to seeing the plan come to fruition, even concocting the perfect disguise: dressing themselves as older men.
American Animals is told in a quasi-documentary style that switches between the past and present, much like Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya does, with the only major difference being the involvement of the individuals who inspired the film. Frequently, the film will cut to interviews with the real Spencer Reinhard or Warren Lipka, either to provide exposition or contradict what the other is saying – not out of spite, but to reinforce the notion that memory is subjective.
There are moments where this approach becomes distracting, particularly during the first act, but overall this flamboyant touch works in the film’s favour. This includes some inspired scenes of fourth-wall breaking, the best of which sees Lipka converse with Peters, the actor who portrays his younger self. Additionally, the interviews help to further humanise the characters and demonstrate the emotional toll of their wrongdoings, more than a decade after the real heist took place.
Although American Animals seeks to admonish criminal behaviour, it still retains those classy touches for which the crime genre is known, including a nostalgic pop soundtrack, snazzy attire, scenes playing in slow-motion and glaring references to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. From an artistic perspective, these attributes are all pretty cool, but their inclusion somewhat contradicts the messages reinforced elsewhere.
Credit must be given to both the actors and interviewees in American Animals. The four young male leads – Keoghan, Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner – convincingly encapsulate their characters, while their real-life counterparts provide raw, honest accounts of events; both parties shine brightest in the third act, during which time viewers are inclined to feel sorry for them. Or they would, were it not for an appearance by Betty Jean Gooch, the poor librarian who bore the brunt of their actions.
Allusions to other movies aside, American Animals is possibly the most idiosyncratic offering the crime genre has to offer. It has a great cast, clever story-telling techniques and a moral lesson to which other films, or would-be thieves, should take heed. If anything, the film is an entertaining alternative to the norm.