American Animals – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The need to feel special motivates four Kentucky college students to get in touch with their animal instincts in this stylish crime drama based on true events.

American Animals. Photo copyright 2018 The Orchard.

Set in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2004 (although filmed in North Carolina), Transylvania University art student, Spencer Reinhard (sensitively portrayed by Barry Keoghan), recognizes his artistic ability, but fears his art will never be significant because he hasn’t suffered for it or undergone some transformative process like famous artists of the past.

A Special Collections Exhibit

One day Spencer’s class visits the special collections exhibit in the school’s library that includes John James Audubon’s original manuscript for The Birds of America. Worth more than $10 million, this book (along with a few other rare items in the small showroom) is the kind of important art Spencer longs to create.

While driving around with his impetuous friend, Warren (Evan Peters bursting with charismatic instability), they theoretically discuss what it would take to steal those rare artifacts. Warren recently lost his athletic scholarship and his parents are divorcing, so in addition to his already freewheeling personality, he now thinks he has little to lose at this point in his life. Their families both live comfortable middle-class lives, so lack of money is not the motivating factor.

The Birds of America is an enormously oversized book guarded by Mrs. Gooch, the special collections librarian, (Ann Dowd, excellent as always) inside a locked case in a locked room. Soon the young men’s random theories start taking shape and they research the possibility of actually pulling off the heist. They decide to enlist the aid of two additional friends, Eric (Jared Abrahamson), a brainy accounting major studying at the nearby University of Kentucky and his wealthy friend, Chas (Blake Jenner), who can provide a reliable vehicle and be the driver for the heist. Each of the four seems to have a different reason for getting involved in the outlandishly ill-conceived plot that includes improvised architectural plans, a stun gun, and old-men disguises.

Actors and the People They Portray

Throughout the film, some of the real people involved in the case give their side of the story, which sometimes conflicts with another person’s version. The four thieves, their parents, a professor, and the librarian share their truth about what happened during that time. Director Bart Layton takes some bold stylish moves with the film by including varying points of view, different versions of some of the scenes, and in one surreal moment has an actor within the film interact with the person he’s portraying as if they long to communicate with each other.

With such a daring heist and such inept thieves there’s plenty that can go wrong, and it does. While their intention was not to hurt anyone or anything, they wind up humiliating, assaulting, and terrorizing the librarian, and risking damage to the rare items they hope to fence on the black market to some Amsterdam dealers. Though not a feel-good film in any way, some comical moments brighten the mood on occasion, and help the audience realize how little perspective the young men have on the severity of their actions.

American Animals

  • In this true story, four male college students with no experience and no motive, plan a daring heist of a library’s prized possession.
  • Stars: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Ann Dowd, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Udo Kier, Lara Grice, Whitney Goin, Wayne Duvall
  • Director-Writer: Bart Layton
  • Genre: Crime Drama
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some drug use and crude /sexual material)
  • Additional Information: American Animals was the opening film for the 2018 Florida Film Festival.