Why did four privileged college students decide, in 2004, to pull off a violent art robbery at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, despite their lack of criminal expertise? That’s the underlying mystery of Bart Layton’s American Animals, a too-cute cross between a heist movie and a true-crime documentary that ends up borrowing the worst traits of both. It’s a film that tosses questions at the viewer with no interest in answering them, one that can’t decide if it feels for its subjects or just wants to mock their incompetence.
Layton, a veteran of British TV, has made one other feature film—2012’s The Imposter, a documentary about a French conman who convinced a Texas family that he was their long-lost son, despite looking nothing like him. It featured straight-to-camera interviews with everyone involved and was driven by very personal drama—by the strange leaps of logic that allowed this family to believe their son had returned to them. American Animals mostly consists of fictional re-creations of the Transylvania University robbery, but it also includes interviews with the perpetrators themselves, reminiscing on their past crimes. The intended purpose of this approach is harder to grasp.
There isn’t much that’s ambiguous about the robbery that Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk ineptly committed in their college days. Their target was a rare book, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, which was on display at Transylvania’s library and protected by one kindly caretaker, a woman in her mid-50s named Betty Jean Gooch. Reinhard first noticed the potential money that could be made, and mentioned the scheme to his friend Lipka; the others came later. Their plan: to incapacitate Gooch (played by Ann Dowd in the film) with a taser, make off with the book, and fence it in Amsterdam.
Things, of course, did not go to plan. So much of American Animals is a Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight–type comedy of errors, focused on a group of arrogant teenagers who quickly get in over their heads. Evan Peters plays Lipka as a kid who’s angry at the world for reasons he can’t articulate. It’s a performance full of energy and seething fury that’s being directed nowhere in particular—the audience knows Lipka is bad news, but little else. His friendship with the more happy-go-lucky Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) goes back to their childhood, and yet there’s no chemistry between the pair.
Every good heist movie needs a believably fun, connected team, and American Animals unfortunately lacks for one. The other two characters, brought in later, are the coldly analytical Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and the preening jock Allen (Blake Jenner). Neither adds much to the proceedings except for a lot of impassioned yelling as things begin to go wrong. Everyone’s motivation for participating in the crime, outside of the chance to make some money, is basically unknown, but Layton’s script keeps hinting at something darker and more elemental driving them, particularly Lipka.
That must be why the director decided to involve the real people in his movie, right? The film’s interviews with Lipka, Reinhard, Allen, and Borsuk promise to shed some light on the reasons they threw their lives away on such a hare-brained scheme. But Layton’s documentary footage is just as oblique as the fictionalized stuff. Lipka, in particular, appears to delight in being a blank page, shrugging with dozy glee at the most probing questions. If the point of American Animals is that all these years later no one really knows what motivated the crime beyond avarice, well, that doesn’t seem interesting enough to build an entire movie around.
Layton’s direction of the robbery itself is nicely slick, his cast is handsome and charming (particularly the nervy Peters), and the first hour of the film, which sees their plan unfold, is undeniably gripping. But in the second hour, as things spin out of control and recriminations pile up, American Animals becomes a slog. The inclusion of the real-life figures stops feeling like an intriguing addition and becomes a bizarre distraction. Does Layton want the viewer to sympathize with these people? If he does, American Animals is a severe miscalculation, an ultimately empty romp about a group of thoughtless villains. Perhaps other viewers will see the humanity at play. I couldn’t.