Look at the headline above. Cross out the third, fourth and fifth words. What do you get? “This is a true story”. After a Darwin quote about American animals moving into the Kentucky caves to the audio backdrop of birdsong, that’s how this true-crime documentary-slash-feature film opens – by letting us know that everything we’re about to see really happened.
The Darwin quote is relevant because it comes from one of the extremely rare and valuable books and works of art that a group of four young men – boys, really – stole from Transylvania University in Kentucky in 2004 in one of the boldest and, arguably, most bizarre and ill-advised heists in US history.
Featuring the real robbers
Actors play the real-life men who plotted, pulled off and ultimately bungled the robbery – Warren Lipka is played by Evan Peters of Pose; as his best friend Spencer Reinhardt we have Barry Keoghan, whom you may recognise from 2017’s Dunkirk; the foursome is completed by Blake Jenner as buff, brash entrepreneur Chas Allen, and Jared Abrahamson as the brainy loner Erik Borsuk – but make no mistake. The real men are as integral to the movie as their actor counterparts, and that goes for their parents as well as the librarian Betty Jean Gooch, played by Ann Dowd, who was the only person standing between the men and their loot.
Probably the most eye-opening thing to come out of the interviews with the real-life criminals (though, to be honest, it seems like that word should be put in inverted commas – these guys were hardly criminal masterminds) is that there was nothing setting them apart from other middle-class men their own age. They were from privileged backgrounds, with fairly stable families, enough money to get their hands on all the weed they wanted, and weren’t stereotypical troublemakers or marked out as bad apples.
Their downfall, the one thing that drew them together and compelled them to embark on this journey, to cross the line that could never be uncrossed?
This, in Spencer’s words: “Do you ever wonder, you ended up being born. You, here, and not someone else? Do you ever feel like you’re waiting for something to happen, but you don’t know what it is? But it’s that thing that could make your life special.”
And this, in Warren’s: “And so, the idea that we were doing this extraordinary thing absolutely appealed to us. Appealed to me.”
The heist, the books, the works of art, the months of planning, the terror, the elaborate disguises, the getaway car, the failed scholarship, everything that Warren, Spencer, Erik and Chas put themselves through was for the chance of glory, the chance to stand out and make their lives “special”.
By comparison, the money they could get from the sale of the books and artworks – millions of dollars – is hardly ever discussed.
What makes American Animals stand out
Enough of how and what the movie makes you think. Probably the best thing about this not-quite-documentary is how it makes you feel.
When the four finally go through with their Plan B (after Plan A, the one featuring the laughable disguises, fails spectacularly), seeing Warren approaching the middle-aged librarian he is supposed to overpower using a taser, you’ll be tempted to cover your eyes. The sheer and naked terror on Peters’s face as he looks down at her, contemplating what he’s about to do, is more horrifying than almost any scene in pretty much any true-crime documentary we’ve seen in months.
And you’ll want to die inside when Warren and Erik end up in the main library, toting the enormous Birds of America art book covered in a pink sheet between them, instead of in the basement, where they’re supposed to be able to escape unseen – all because Warren pushed the wrong button on the elevator. It’s the middle of the day, the place is teeming with students, everybody sees them. It’s just too much. If this was a fictional film, you’d start rolling your eyes – but this is exactly how it happened in real life.
There’s a really fun Oceans spoof that shows how the four imagined the heist would go – swiftly, smoothly, and devoid of any slip-ups, sweat, shaking and fatal elevator errors – and Warren’s glee during the planning stages is infectious. It might not sound like it here, but big chunks of the movie, particularly while their plans are being laid, is a lot of fun.
But what’s not fun, and what makes you realise how quickly the four discovered that what they’d done was no longer a game, is seeing the deep regret and overwhelming dread that filled the men after they’d pulled off the heist, watching them falling to pieces in their own ways in the aftermath.
And what is especially not fun is watching real-life Warren crying in his interview when he admits that, though they swore they wouldn’t hurt anyone, they did. He did. He didn’t mean to and didn’t want to, but he did.
You’ll never find yourself feeling as sorry for the “bad guys” in a true-crime story as in this one.