– Spencer Reinhard, American Animals
Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals tells the true story of Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, four friends who feel trapped within their ordinary lives in Kentucky. After a visit to Transylvania University, Reinhard and Lipka devise a plot to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library. As their heist begins to unravel, the men begin to question whether their attempts to feel the rush of excitement and injecting purpose into their lives were misguided and even potentially dangerous.
With influences ranging from heist films to documentary, American Animals pops off the screen with its fluid movement between genres. Featuring interviews with the real Reinhard, Lipka and many others, Animals bears the weight of authenticity as the four men recount their journey from students to art thieves. At the same time, the film is embedded with a free-wheeling gleefulness as the team dreams big about the future that awaits them. As a result, the film bounces between the energy of Ocean’s Eleven and the gravitas of The Social Network. What’s more, Animals is enthusiastically self-aware of its theft of genre styles, featuring references to multiple pop culture favourites such as Reservoir Dogs, The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption, and yes, Ocean’s Eleven. While the entire cast do an excellent job of balancing the two tones, Evan Peters’ stand-out performance as Lipka provides the film with its highest dose of charisma and energy.
Since they all come from (mostly) positive home environments and excel in their education, one might find these young men to be unexpected choices for art thieves. However, Reinhard, Lipka and their team are portrayed as simply… bored. These are young men who have lost their sense of self and are looking for that rush to help them feel alive again (especially Lipka). For them, the pop culture references become the gold standard of what they want to achieve. If they pull off this heist, they believe that they get to become the films they idolize.
Besides, no one will get hurt.
Ironically, these are young men who already live the American Dream but their souls have come up empty. Reinhold and his team are lost when they attempt to grasp what it means to have purpose or make a positive impact in the world. In an almost Ecclesiastical revelation, they find that their lives and future are essentially meaningless. As a result, the most important goal to them becomes doing something significant.
They want to leave their mark, even if it means being reckless to do it.
However, as things start to unravel, we see another side of the crew: guilt. As reality begins to seep into their pop culture dreams, we watch as recklessness turns to regret. Unlike other heist films, Reinhard and his team become increasingly aware of the ramifications of their actions as things begin to spin out of control. What if they get caught? Could someone actually get hurt?
Interestingly though, rather than simply present itself as an honest recreation of events, the film is entirely comfortable recognizing that our memories can’t necessarily always be trusted. Several times throughout the film, the real Reinhard and Lipka note that the events depicted may not be fully accurate as even they have difficulty with some of the details. As the lines between truth and lies become blurred, somehow the characters seem to become more honest in their regrets, revealing a subtle humility within them. (Or do they? With morality this murky, it can be difficult to tell.)
In the end, American Animals offers all the thrills you would expect from a heist film, mixed with the weight of regret by disillusioned youth. In many ways, the film becomes a scathing indictment of the American Dream by revealing the sheer emptiness of lives with wealth but no purpose. Regardless of which details of the heist are accurate and which are misremembered, Animals is an intriguing and, at times, unsettling film that offers solid entertainment as well. Though you may not have heard of it, this film is well worth your time and money.
After all, what could it hurt?
American Animals is in theatres now.