The obvious comparison for American Animals is the current Ocean’s 8, except instead of depicting a heist executed by seasoned professionals, Bart Layton’s film concerns a group of morons who don’t know what they’re doing. I think the better comparison is I, Tonya, a movie with multiple contradictory perspectives on a hideously misbegotten real-life crime. The attempted robbery of the Transylvania University library in 2004 seems to make for fertile ground for a comic treatment like those other films, or like another spiritual forbear in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Why Layton treats this story with the dead seriousness that he does, I’m not really sure. His movie, which expands to Tarrant County theaters this week, doesn’t come up with much in the way of profundity, though it is compulsively watchable.
In late 2003, Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) starts attending the exclusive school in Lexington, Ky., where he tours its celebrated collection of rare and historical books, kept in a special locked room at the library. When he mentions to his buddy Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) that the copy of Audubon’s Birds of America is likely worth $12 million on its own, Warren immediately conceives a plan to steal it, hating his life as a scholarship athlete at the University of Kentucky across town. Eventually, he recruits classmate Eric Bursok (Jared Abrahamson) and rich jock Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) to help out.
Unlike I, Tonya, the movie intersperses its re-creations of events with interviews with the real-life subjects rather than the actors portraying them, as well as parents, professors, and others who knew them. As in I, Tonya, Layton emphasizes the unreliability of the re-enactments; when accounts differ about the color of a man’s scarf, the scarf in question changes from blue to purple before our eyes. There’s some regrettable business in the script tying Audubon’s animal observations (and Charles Darwin’s, since the would-be thieves also have their sights on a first-edition Origin of the Species that’s also in the library) to the boys’ criminal behavior. He’s better off just observing the students as they approach the job like it’s the greatest college prank ever instead of a felony, spurred on by intellectual curiosity, male bravado, and frustration with their safe and prosperous lives. The guys are woefully overmatched; Warren and Spencer think they’re adequately prepared by watching caper films such as Rififi and Reservoir Dogs, and imagine that after the robbery, they’ll send special collections librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) an envelope full of cash to compensate her for overpowering her.
The movie is anchored by a frightening performance from Peters, familiar from the latest X-Men films. His Warren is a compelling creation, relentlessly overestimating his own foresight and ingenuity while egging the other conspirators by calling them cowards whenever they raise even reasonable objections and exhorting them with the idea that they were meant to do something awesome. His dogged determination and nerviness (he quits his scholarship, calling both UK and his coach a massive disappointment to him) drive this plot over all obstacles, and you understand how his force of personality would sweep up friends who have plenty to lose.
American Animals never really earns the somber treatment that Layton gives it, but it does showcase his storytelling talent, especially during the climactic robbery as it goes wrong in all sorts of ways. If his film falls short of the heist movies that the boys watch, it does mark this first-time filmmaker as a talent to watch.
Starring Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters. Written and directed by Bart Layton. Rated R.