Some would say the real American Dream is to get rich quick, and nothing brings a windfall of cash like an old fashioned robbery. Many a film has romanticized the idea of the heist in exact detail, from months of careful plotting to the ideal clean getaway to living the rest of your life lounging on a sun-soaked tropical paradise. That’s where the interesting drama / documentary hybrid “American Animals” finds its originality (and its hook): it’s about the aftermath of a wrongdoing, the reality of the supposed “perfect plan,” and the inconsistent viewpoints of all involved.
Directed by Bart Layton (“The Imposter”), the film tells the true story of four misguided college boys in Kentucky who plotted to rob a multi-million dollar collection of rare books from their University in 2004 (the crime was dubbed the “Transy Book Heist”). The quartet prepare a plan by watching old heist movies, reading how-to crime books, and practicing their getaway route by car over and over again. Some of their ideas are pure genius (like attempting the theft on exam day) and others show their criminal incompetence and bring unwanted attention (wearing old man disguises). As they become increasingly convinced they can actually get away with it, they set the final plan in motion.
Subjective storytelling and the unreliability of memory are key ideas at play here, as this clever documentary blurs the lines between reality and fiction. The film is framed with brief interviews and recollections from the real-life men peppered between fantastic dramatic scenes (and equally compelling performances from Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, and Ann Dowd). This device is cunning, cagey, and wildly effective, never taking the viewer out of the moment. It feels more like an entertaining work of fiction than a talking heads style doc.
Even more interesting is that the film portrays the devastating emotional effects of committing a crime, from the stifling regret to the ensuing paranoia and finally the eventual desire to get caught. That’s not something you see in most romanticized Hollywood heist films, and it’s utterly compelling.
This is an engaging true crime film that’s all about conflicting perspectives and is also thoroughly entertaining. And if you’ve ever daydreamed about plotting a robbery of your own, it will remind you that you probably aren’t as smart as you think you are.