Collegiate Criminals: Life imitates art imitates life in the boundary-breaking crime caper 'American Animals'

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In 2004, four college students—all well-educated, from relatively privileged backgrounds—put in motion a heist that would, they hoped, establish them as criminal masterminds-in-the-making. The target: John James Audobnon’s Birds of America and a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, worth millions of dollars. The plan: enter their university library’s special collections room, restrain the librarian, take the books and sell them to a fence in Amsterdam. The training: Well, they watched a bunch of heist movies. It can’t be that hard, can it?

The result: Jail.

The true story of Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk and Charles “Chas” Allen III could easily have been made into your standard crime comedy, equal parts high-energy fun and “LOL, these guys are idiots—how did they ever think they’d be able to pull this off?”

With American Animals, out this weekend from The Orchard, that is not the movie writer/director Bart Layton made.

“People are always keen to categorize things, you know,”says Layton. “Is it a documentary, is it a drama, is it a narrative?” American Animals is all of the above—a doc-narrative hybrid that blends talking-head segments of the real-life criminals and people adjacent to their planned heist with narrative reenactments. In those latter scenes, the four men are played by Barry Keoghan (as Spencer, a soft-spoken aspiring artist), Evan Peters (Warren, the requisite wild card), Blake Jenner (Chas, the preppy young entrepreneur) and Jared Abrahamson (Eric, the most tactical-minded of the four), with Ann Dowd as the ill-fated librarian.

To say American Animals is a “doc-narrative hybrid,” however, doesn’t get across the interesting ways in which Layton plays with form. At times, members of the wannabe criminal quartet, now reformed, interact with their fictionalized counterparts. As we hear the real-life men recount the planning leading up to the attempted heist, sometimes their accounts differ. Did a particular conversation take place at a party, or in a car? Who first pushed the idea of the heist in the first place: Spencer or Warren? Rather than picking one version of the tale and going with it, Layton intercuts back and forth between both—telling a compelling story at the same time as he draws attention to how real-life events get “Hollywoodized.”

“Even documentaries are narrative films,” Layton argues. “It’s storytelling, isn’t it?” Every documentarian chooses how to construct their story—which facts to include, which to omit, who to believe when accounts differ. “Not only are [the four  men] unreliable narrators,” Layton notes, “but also, memory can be pretty unreliable as well. Memories are not always dependable. They would each describe the same incident, but remember it differently. I thought, you can either choose one version over the other, because it’s more dramatic or cinematic or whatever, or you make a virtue of the fact that it doesn’t all add up… In that way, you’re inviting the audience to understand that this is how movies get fictionalized."

“Audiences now are so sophisticated and clever, and they know what the game is, right?,” he continues. That A-list actor looks nothing like the real-life schlub he’s portraying. The facts of a person’s life are massaged and condensed to fit them into a Hollywood-friendly three-act structure. The “true story” in “based on a true story” is trueish, and in any case it’s based on limited perspective. With American Animals, Layton pulls back the curtain on the cycle of life imitating art imitating life. “I’m inviting the audience in, in a way. Going, ‘look, we all know what the game is—let’s just be honest about it.’”

“Part of what I wanted to do with the structure of the film was to mirror the idea of falling into a movie fantasy. The film starts with one kind of look and feel, and gently you find yourself falling into the same movie fantasy as they do,” says Layton. Which makes it all the more emotionally affecting when the fantasy inevitably falls apart. It’s hard to keep the story at arm’s length, the same as you would when watching an average crime caper, when you’ve seen Warren’s real-life father cry about the path his son went down.

Layton never wanted to approach American Animals’ story as merely a “great, rollicking roller-coaster ride of a tale”—though it certainly is that. He wanted “something bigger—something worth talking about that feels culturally relevant.” Layton began corresponding with the four men when they were still in jail; his movie wasn’t in the cards at the time, as they’d already sold their life rights to another producer. The irony is thick. Men, influenced by movies, try to pull off a Hollywood-inspired heist. Men fail. Their failure nets them a movie deal almost right away. That deal, as often happens in Hollywood, expired, giving the foursome the option to renew their deal with the other producer or let Layton—with whom they’d now been conversing for quite some time—take a crack at it.

By that point, Layton and the men had exchanged numerous “letters and movie references and poems”—with one of their main subjects of conversation being the motivations for the attempted heist. Said motivations had less to do with money than “with shaking everything up. Spencer, particularly, had this idea of longing to be an artist, but feeling that he had nothing worth of writing or making art about, nothing to say. [He wanted] something that would give him an experience of life, because his life was too nice and perfect. That’s such a timely idea. That your main problem is that don’t have a big enough problem, in this middle-class suburban world you’re inhabiting.”

That “bigger” idea Layton uncovered was a portrait of “how the American dream has shifted, culturally. There’s a pressure to leave a mark on the world in a way that there never was before.” Spencer, Warren, Eric and Chas come from families with “nice houses, nice cars in the driveway, manicured lawns, food on the table”—everything but the white picket fence. To their parents, that’s success. To them, it’s “mediocrity,” says Layton. Generation to generation, he argues, the definition of what constitutes “success” has shifted. Home ownership and 2.5 kids now mean less, as markers of a life well-lived, than racking up experiences—usually things like travel, photos shared on Instagram for the approval of one’s peers, but in this case attempted robbery. It’s validation through living this “so-called special life that you believe you’ve been promised. And for most of us, that’s just not going to happen.”

One of the men, Layton recalls, said that planning the heist was “our version of Fight Club. It was our secret that made us different and better than everyone else.”