American Animals ***1/2

A superb heist movie with a twist, just not the type of twist you’re thinking of. 

Is it worth $10? Yes  

For worse, movies glamorize thievery. The bigger the heist the more fun it is, sure, but the moral component of robbery has always been dubious. Even if stealing for a righteous cause, it still includes taking something that isn’t yours.

When watching the grand thefts as entertainment (such as the “Ocean’s” movies), the characters rarely feel bad about what they’re doing. Just the opposite, in fact: Usually they’re on such a platitude about pulling it off that the consequences are rarely mentioned, let alone seriously considered.

“American Animals” takes this notion and twists in a fascinating exposé of four otherwise “normal” college students who steal rare books from Transylvania University in Kentucky in 2004. These guys are not hardened criminals; aside from recreational drugs and speeding, they’ve barely ever broken the law. So what would possess them to steal from the school library?

Millions of dollars, if they can authenticate and sell the books, we learn. It’s also clear why main planners Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an aspiring artist with little life experience to speak of, and Warren (Evan Peters), a loose cannon product of a broken home, would want to do this. Less clear are the motivations for Eric (Jared Abrahamson), who wants to join the FBI, and Chas (Blake Jenner), a fitness fanatic, who join the team later and seem to have a lot to lose. A bit more character development for Eric and Chas would’ve been welcome.

Still, this is an intriguing cautionary tale of good kids gone bad, to the extent that they ignored their conscience that told them “stop!” as the planned date of the robbery approached. Throughout the film there are ups and downs, obstacles and the unexpected, and what’s interesting is how the sense of decline and dread sets in before the heist even begins. The end result, accordingly, is painful and expected.

“American Animals” is based on a true story, and one of the ingenious elements of writer/director Bart Layton’s film is the incorporation of the real Spencer, Warren, Eric and Chas in confessional interviews as they recall what happened. In some cases their recollections of events vary, but it’s the blending of fact and fiction that’s significant here, allowing Layton to create the sense that these young men were acting outside of themselves (as if they were in a movie!) in a way they knew was wrong, yet couldn’t bring themselves to stop pursuing. Seeing the real guys look back with candor and regret is also something rarely experienced in a heist movie. It feels refreshingly honest, and its inclusion gives “American Animals” more appeal.

In one scene, Spencer and Warren rent a number of heist flicks to learn the tricks of the trade. Surely, they thought the real thing would play out like a movie, what with all the time and intricate planning they put into the process. But movies and real life are two very different things, and part of the brilliance of “American Animals” is how well it articulates that fact.

Did you know?
Layton’s discussions with the four guys formed the basis of the screenplay, then he decided to interview the guys on camera during production, and crafted the movie around the interviews and dramatizations of the events.

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