The docudrama American Animals is based on the true story of a rare books heist gone wrong at Transylvania University in Lexington Kentucky in 2004. The story itself is not only outrageous but also fascinating. American Animals, written and directed by Bart Layton retells the story of four students—all male, white, (presumably) straight, middleclass, and shrouded in all-American privilege commensurate with their place in society. Alas, kids will be kids, and even those with exceptional opportunities may think themselves too ordinary to go on; chalk it up to the quiet desperation Henry David Thoreau wrote about that results from complacent isolation and a lack of meaningful direction or existence. Or—maybe they were just spoilt kids with a false sense of grandeur, living in a world of delusions, who lacked maturity, and were just not that bright. But whatever it was, it made for a great and almost comical story, and Layton brings it home.
In the belly of the library at Transylvania University is a treasure trove of unique, rare, and extremely valuable editions of books, from those authored by Charles Darwin, to John James Audobon’s original “Birds of America”, which was printed between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 life-sized watercolors of North American birds. Even in 2013, the book of which there are approximately 120 intact copies known to exist, sold at auction for about $11.5 million. The stakes were high for the four protagonist of American Animals, as they planned and plotted to steal these books and sell them in the black market. If successful not only would they have been rich, but also anything but ordinary—and in the end, that is what seems to drive them. The film centers around two of the friends, Spencer (Barry Keoghan), who is determined to become an artist but lacks a well of life experience from which to draw— there’s not much suffering in a cushy and privileged life. The other friend is Warren (Evan Peters) who has also been raised to believe that his life will be special, someday perhaps. Together they fantasize about stealing the treasures through an elaborate and fantastical heist, for which they recruit two other friends of a similar ilk. Eric (Jared Abrahamson) is an accounting major with a head for logistics, and Chas (Blake Jenner), a fitness fanatic, and a pretty boy, provides the gang with needed resources. The gang relies on that omnipotent arbiter of culture – television – to inform the heist. The misinformation combined with the players’ own limitations and delusions makes for a hapless execution of a plan that only really ever worked in their imaginations.
The film does a lot of things really well. As the docudrama unfurls, it tells the story and blurs the lines between reality and fiction by interjecting interviews with the real perpetrators, their families, and the librarian who bore the brunt of their shenanigans. As the story is told by the, now, men who undertook the heist and who can look back on their experience, the film calls into question the integrity of memory, individual and collectively. It’s fascinating to hear the different accounts that lead one to doubt the details but trust the outcome because the outcome is clear, they got caught, they went to prison, and they emerged seemingly unscathed, after all, membership in the white majority has its privileges, no matter how hapless or cruel the acts are.