A squence in American Animals would have made a very useful contextualising clip for the episode on Heist Movies in the Secrets of Cinema documentary series I co-wrote with Mark Kermode. Having learned of extremely valuable books kept in the custody of a sole elderly librarian on their Kentucky campus (the place really is called Transylvania University), four students plot to steal them. Their homework is watching DVDs of great heist movies, paying especial attention to The Killing – though presumably not to the last reel, since they make several of the mistakes that doom Kubrick’s crew, plus several more of their own.
Writer-director Bart Layton, following up the narrative true crime unbelievable true story documentary The Impostor, intercuts interviews with the four principles in the robbery with recreations of their shaky memories, fully exploring the possibility that they are in error or making stuff up. At one point, actor Evan Peters breaks character and asks prime mover Warren Lipka, who he’s playing, if a scene went down the way it is shown onscreen and Lipka shrugs it off with ‘it’s not how I remember it, but if it’s the way Spencer does okay’. It’s a peculiar, perhaps unique quirk of this dramatisation that the four real-life crooks – all interviewed post-prison – are more movie-star handsome than the grungier actors playing them, and as in The Impostor Layton puts a laser focus on admitted wrongdoers that doesn’t let them off the moral hook the way many films based on far more appalling crimes do their real-life bandits, killers and con-men.
We can tell from chats with doting, still-puzzled parents and the crooks themselves that this ‘one step out of line’ has shaken them in a way they didn’t foresee – but all the sympathy is reserved for the librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (played by Ann Dowd), who is easily put out of the way in a Gambit-like fantasy run-through of the heist (to the tune of Elvis’s ‘A Little Less Talk A Little More Action’) but suffers a lot more when – on their second attempt – the clumsy crew shock, stun and bind her while lifting a multi-volume Audobon (which turns out to be too heavy to carry) and other goodies like an Origin of the Species. It’s misleading even to call this a heist film, though during the planning stage that’s exactly how the participants see it – Eric Borsuk, who is played by Jared Abrahamson, deadpans that Reservoir Dogs is ‘probably my least favourite Tarantino’ after Lipka has named Chas Allen, played by Blake Jenner, ‘Mr Pink’ ‘just to fuck with him’ while it’s muttered that ‘everyone gets killed in that film’. In fact, the primary crime this crew pull off is the common assault on an innocent, kindly lady – the fact that they feel bad about it now and (in the depiction) even during the crime isn’t really a mitigating circumstance and Layton quite rightly lets the dignified, decent Ms Gooch have nearly the last word.
The narrative is mostly carried by Spencer Reinhard, played by Barry Keoghan, who sort of initiates the plan but views it – or claims to view it – as an intellectual exercise he is always expecting will run into an insurmountable obstacle and get called off. However, it’s the combustible fantasist Lipka – who may have made up a whole Amsterdam trip and a meet with a shady contact (inevitably Udo Kier) – who comes to dominate the bungled robbery and the messy aftermath. The older Lipka seems still surprised and upset by his own capability for evil. It has an excellent score by Anne Nikitin and an interesting, compilation-album-worthy selection of offbeat existing tracks (more Wes Anderson than Tarantino) to highlight its weirder stretches.