'American Animals' -- bizarre, entertaining story of a real life heist
Posted June 1, 2018 6:46 p.m. EDT
embargo until Monday, June 4 at 6 am Pacific time
``American Animals'' is a heist movie about four young men in Kentucky who put together and execute a plan to steal precious rare books. These men are the most inept thieves in the history of movies, maybe in the history of the world; and yet they're not stupid. What they are, instead, are amateurs, who stumble into crime for reasons that even they don't completely understand.
Written and directed by Bart Layton, ``American Animals'' dramatizes a true story, set in 2003 and 2004, but it sprinkles in a documentary element, in which the real-life participants in the story appear on screen as talking heads, commenting on the action. The men -- still young, in their early 30s -- have a haunted look in their eyes, the reasons for which become clear as the movie wears on.
Their weird descent begins when quiet, artistic Spencer (Barry Keoghan) finds out that the library at Transylvania University -- no, it's not in Romania, but in Lexington, Ky. -- has a rare Audubon book (really a bound collection of paintings and drawings) that's worth $12 million dollars. He mentions this to his more boisterous friend, Warren (Evan Peters), and soon they're planning to rob the book and sell it to a fence. But they don't know any fences.
``American Animals'' demonstrates how major heists should be left in the hands of professionals. Spencer and Warren don't know how to do anything, but they stumble along. At one point, Warren travels to the Netherlands to meet a fence (although there is some doubt, among the rest of the crew, whether the meeting ever really took place). Spencer and Warren also have no idea how many guys they need for the job, though ultimately they settle on bringing two more fellows into the plot.
Throughout this entertaining movie, the prospective heist takes on an air of unreality. Even though, without the heist, there would be no reason for the movie, it hardly seems possible that the heist will happen, not with these guys. Indeed, it's not certain that the participants themselves even want it to happen. Yes, Warren is all for it, but the rest of them just seem willing to go along.
Part of the explanation for them sticking with the plan may be Warren's personal charisma, not the charisma evidenced by the actor playing Warren, but that of the real-life Warren. He seems forceful and funny and looks like the leading man in a zany romantic comedy. Another explanation, suggested by the movie's title, is that this is just an American thing, the desire for money, the desire to be somebody, to have status, to have an interesting story.
Yet one has to wonder . . . where are the young women in this story? Why don't Spencer and Warren have girlfriends? One gets the feeling that, if either of them had one the plan might have been scuttled immediately. The reason for this is that it often seems as though the guys are in this plot out of boredom, or out of some restless desire to feel that they have hope. A couple of well-placed girlfriends would have assuaged the boys' adolescent angst and taken them out of each other's dangerous orbit.
``American Animals'' evokes the feeling of an anxiety dream, specifically the common one in which you know you've done something bad and irrevocable and now must live with the consequences. It's a relief, always, to wake up from a dream like that, but ``American Animals'' offers the spectacle of guys who can't wake up. They're no more criminal than the average person, but now they're stuck in it and can't get out.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MickLaSalle
3 stars out of 4 stars Comedy-Drama. Starring Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters. Directed by Bart Layton. (R. 107 minutes.)