The film American Animals is as much fun to watch as it is surprising to learn that it is a true story about four college students (Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen) who attempt to heist incredibly valuable books from the Transylvania University in Kentucky. The events are so ridiculous, that I would have expected the movie to be a satire rather than a true account. From Warren googling (in a public library by the way) “how to rob a bank”, to them using the names from Reservoir Dogs in the planning of the heist, to the fact that (Spoiler alert) they actually managed to run through the main hall of the library with two of the books! The movie almost seems unbelievable.
The statement at the beginning of the movie, that it is not based off a true story, but rather is a true story, seems to be related to the film’s honesty about what it is. Of course American Animals (just like every film about a true story) is guilty of filling in the gaps in the memories of the subjects, and of dramatizing certain events to make it more entertaining to watch. However, the film often admitted to the former. It is a docudrama: a mix of interviews with actual subjects of the film and the dramatic portrayals of the events by the actors, and at multiple times the dramatic part plays out the inconsistencies and faulty memories of the people telling the story. At one point in the interviews, Spencer and Warren talk about a meeting they had with a man who was supposed to connect them to a fence. Each of them remembered the man looking a different way, and so two scenes were played out with the man looking different in each of them. The best example of this however, is when Spencer tells Warren about the books and Warren decides they should steal them. Each of the scenes took place in a different location; Warren remembered it happening at a party, and Spencer remembered it in a car at a gas station. The scene ends up continuously switching between the two locations with the dialogue changing slightly to match where they are. Eventually it stops at the gas station, at which point Warren’s character turns to the actual Warren, who is now sitting in the car, and asks him if this is how he remembers it. Warren replies “No, but this is how he remembers it, so we’ll go with it.”
I should also bring up the unreliable character of Warren himself, which is mentioned by the film. Warren is the basic outsider/rebel with no respect for rules. He proudly displays his shoulder tattoo of a T-Rex trying in vain to turn off an overhead light, he robs food from stores and justifies himself by saying most of it would be thrown out anyway, and he claims that they all had an equal part in the heist even though he was the one that came up with the idea and then pressured everyone else into doing it. At one point in the film, Spencer drives Warren to the airport so he can go to Europe and meet with the fence that they plan to sell the books to. We then get the entire story of Warren traveling to Europe, however, at the end of the movie, Spencer says he’s not sure that any of this happened at all. It does seem a little unbelievable that a college student with no experience with criminal underworld would manage to get into contact with a fence in Europe and then travel all the way out to meet him, which the movie admits to. When questioned about this, Warren tells the audience that we’ll just have to take his word for it. So, while American Animals isn’t an account of entirely true events, it is very clever in the way that it admits to this, and is still true enough to be a surprising and gripping story.
Other than the way in which the story was told, I was also interested by a little bit of surrealism that was used. Of course there was the scene where Warren speaks to his older self in the car about how he remembers things happening, but there was also an interaction between old and young Spencer. When they’re all driving to the heist, Spencer looks out the window and sees the older version of himself (the actual Spencer who is being interviewed) standing outside of a house. When the film is wrapping up and they’re talking about where all the main characters are now, they say that Spencer moved back to his hometown (where the heist took place). We then see the interaction between the older and younger Spencer again, only from the older’s (the actual Spencer’s) viewpoint, and it is revealed that he was standing outside his own house. This is something I’m still thinking about. It might have been there to show that, even in his darkest moment, there would be redemption for Spencer, or the film’s way of showing Spencer’s regrets about what he did, or something else entirely.
American Animals is a surprising, fun, and yet serious story about four college students finding redemption after doing something incredibly stupid. The film comes out and says that wasn’t so much about the money as was about the boys feeling like they were stuck in their lives and wanting to do something memorable. They ultimately regret their decisions and are now living simple lives, but ones that they appreciate. The film says a lot about what it really means to leave your mark in the world and was really worth the watch.