American Animals is a cinematic reenactment of an art heist of rare books from Transylvania University in Kentucky. The four real-life robbers add commentary as the film switches between reenactment and the robbers retelling the story in their own words. It is documentary-like but very much a heist film.
Evan Peters plays the ring-leader Warren, Barry Keoghan plays the idea man Spencer, Jared Abrahamson plays the would-be FBI agent, and Blake Jenner plays the wheelman and jock Chas. It is a great cast with a perfect combination of chemistry and friction to be explosive enough. They balance hesitation, optimism, and fear in a way that we all did when we were 21.
The story builds and builds leading up to the robbery, increasing tension, and bypassing multiple offramps. The real-life cast keeps talking about when they could have pulled the plug and stopped the robbery, but their optimism kept them pursuing it. They also talk about crossing a line when you chose to hurt someone else to get what you want. This is repeated ad nauseum throughout the film and is the writer's main takeaway from the film.
The rare book collection was in a locked room accessible by appointment only. A single librarian staffed the room, Betty Jean “BJ” Gooch. Warren had come up with the plan to stun her, a scene set to the same music as Ocean’s 11. Unfortunately, it did not work out that way. It was a major sticking point between Warren and his accomplices. The original plan was for no-one to get hurt. When that changed everyone realizes they must cross the line they keep referring to.
This is a novel movie structure to me. I would guess it is hard to get a group of criminals together to re-live what landed them in jail. The film’s tagline is: “The perfect heist is a work of fiction. This is not based on a true story. This happened.” I think that is a bit too self-important. I enjoyed the movie because of its association with real-life events. It is a good heist movie that is far more believable than most since it happened. It is also a nice look at how our brains might have worked when we were in our early twenties.