American Animals

by Cynthia Citron

In another era the film “American Animals” might have been booked as a comedy. Maybe with Jerry Lewis leading his bumbling crew through an ill-conceived adventure at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. (This is not part of the “comedy”, there really is such a place.)

Oh, where is George Clooney when we need him? Although he’s too old for this gig, his bold persona is captured by the four young men who set out to steal some valuable art and books from the Special Collections section of their university’s library. Especially the original bird paintings by James Audubon, whose dazzling portrait of a flamingo was said to be worth 12 million dollars.

At the same time, in a sudden burst of ennui, a young student named Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) was beginning to question his life and its purpose and what he could do to make it memorable. Then in a group visit to view the library’s formidable treasures, a whimsical answer to that question was supplied by, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a student who had received a football scholarship to the school but didn’t take it very seriously. He, like Spencer, was searching for a meaningful future.

The visit to the securely locked Special Collections triggered Warren’s idea for a special adventure that would provide him and Spencer with incredible wealth and the notoriety that comes with pulling off a successful heist.

Spencer, who came from a warm, loving family that had equipped him with strong ethical principles, was initially reluctant to even consider Warren’s suggestion, but as Warren pursued the idea with more and more enthusiasm he managed to persuade Spencer to go along with the plan, even though there was no “plan” and neither of them had any idea how to go about such a project.

And so Warren became the leader and together they recruited two more friends, Blake Jenner, who played the robber Chas Allen and Jared Abrahamson who played Eric Borsuk, and even though Spencer and the new recruits had periodic spasms of fear and apprehension Warren was so forceful in his convictions that the others continued piling up tools and plotting their moves. Just like the robbers do in every heist movie you’ve ever seen.

When the day of the robbery finally arrives, the story becomes something of a Jerry Lewis farce, except with serious consequences.

“American Animals”, written and directed by Bart Layton, is the true story of the actual robbery that took place in 2004. What’s more, the four perpetrators narrate their own story, appearing from time to time onscreen to augment the tale and add their own perspective.

It’s a beautifully rendered film with cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland and greatly enhanced by the musical score of Anne Nikitin. But be warned: the music is written to supplement the frenzied action and emotional baggage of the film, and while it is symphonic sometimes, for the most part, the noise and banging and electronic devices may cause your ears to fall off. But then, you might think it’s worth it.

“Americans Animals” which premiered at Sundance in January 2018, opened in Los Angeles last weekend (on June 15th) and can be seen now at a theater near you.