A movie seemingly custom-made for the era of alternative facts, American Animals feels like a new kind of true-crime thriller: one that shamelessly rewrites its truths in real time as it goes.
Inspired by the so-called Transy Book Heist, Animals tells the story of Spencer Reinhard (played here by both Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan and Reinhard himself), a college kid marking time at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, and his friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters, also splitting with the actual Lipka).
A wild-haired man-child with a perpetual joint in his mouth and a shaky T. rex tattooed on his bicep, Warren is up for anything, including Spencer’s idle idea to rob the college’s collection of premium rare books — particularly its crown jewel, John James Audubon’s elaborately illustrated Birds of America.
How hard could it be to knock out a librarian, grab the goods, and fence them on the black market? Well, first they need to learn what a fence is. But soon the pair are giddy with homework: mapping out exit routes, planning disguises, studying a stack of helpful DVDs (Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job) — and recruiting two new co-conspirators, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner).
Writer-director Bart Layton’s approach is half forensic, half surreal, a docudrama bedazzled by fourth-wall breaks and winking what-ifs. It’s bravura look-at-me filmmaking, and undeniably fun. But as the Reservoir Dogs swagger inevitably yields to reality, he strikes a deeper chord, too: These boys may be callow and foolish and terrible at grand larceny, but they aren’t animals. They’re misguided believers in another kind of American dream — the myth of the cool-eyed outlaw who takes what he wants, and always walks away clean. B+