AMERICAN ANIMALS. Starring: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, and Anne Dowd. Directed by Bart Layton. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong Coarse language) 117 min.
This American-British crime drama, part fiction and part real, tells the story of four young men, who attempt to steal rare and valuable books from an American University. The crime was actually committed, and was well publicised by the media, and took place in 2004.
In the film, Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is an art student, from Lexington, Kentucky, USA, who is dispirited with life and eager for more excitement. He enthuses a fellow student, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), and together they plan to steal rare editions of James Audubon’s “The Birds of America”, and the first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” from the Library at Transylvania University, USA, after finding out there is keen interest from black market book buyers. To help them, they enlist the aid of Erik Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner). The person guarding the books in the Library is Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd).
Their first attempt was aborted, and the four resolve to steal the books at the same time the following day. They go off with rare books - not necessarily their chosen ones - but things go wrong. The police have no problems tracking them from the emails they send to each other; and they accidentally leave their phone number with a dealer for checking. All of them engage in behaviour that incriminates them. They are charged, go to prison for 7 years, and serve their terms. The film ends with the final credits telling us what the real robbers are doing now, and we learn that Betty Gooch still works as the Special Collections Librarian.
The film shows the real robbers who committed the crime that the movie dramatises, and each of them appears in interviews threaded through the movie. They try to spell out the reasons for the crime they committed, and we hear their words of regret for their past deeds after they have served their prison term. The success of this strategy hinges on the notion that the crime had a clear rationale, but their words of redemption ring true. Essentially, the scenario - under the Director’s control - urges the viewer to implicitly contrast their words of regret with our understanding of the robbers’ real motivation. By combining fictional characters with real people, the film offers a synthesis of the nature of criminal events with attempts to explain them. Further, the film powerfully and convincingly displays the acute distress that can occur when four young people move from sane and relatively sensible behaviour to behaviour characterised by self-inflicted criminal intent.
The interviews with the actual criminals gives the film an air of reality that has a documentary feel. and it is left to the viewer to reconcile this reality with the director’s construction of the crime. In so doing, the movie acquires a distinctive psychological edge. It becomes a story about men, who inhabit a crime that others have actually committed. The film’s fictional account of the crime mixes technically with actual events well, and the movie asks intriguingly “what is reality in the mix?”. As the final credits fade, we are not sure where fantasy ends, and reality begins.
The viewer has to work out the “fit”, as it were, of the words expressed by the four actual robbers with the movie version of the crime. The viewers are left to judge for themselves the satisfactory nature of the fit that they perceive. The film makes you think twice about what lies at the dividing line that separates true and fantasied versions of the same events, and it raises interesting questions about who is to blame for what, when, and if it actually happened that way.
The title of the movie touches on the theorising of Charles Darwin, and depiction of the violence of the crime has some similarity with the style of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) - Betty Gooch was assaulted during the robbery. This is a movie that intrigues in the way it constructs seeming-reality. It also raises the question in contemporary terms of “what’s real in a world of ‘fake’ reporting?”, and it illustrates very cleverly that crime doesn’t pay.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released October 4th., 2018