Back in 2004, four Lexington, Kentucky students named Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Charles Allen II hatched a half-baked plan to steal two rare books from the Transylvania University Library: a first edition of “On the Origin of the Species” by Charles Darwin and a book of sketches by John James Audubon. Their real-life exploits became the movie American Animals, which premiered at Sundance. It showed at SXSW on Opening Night, Friday, March 9th.
The lead character of Spencer, as played by Evan Peters, the psychotic clown on this past season’s “American Horror Story” who has appeared in nearly all of the seasons of that horror series, was not present in Austin. Barry Keoghan (“Dunkirk”), who played Warren Lipka in the film, did come, along with Director Bart Layton, as did Jared Abrahamson, who played Eric Borsuk.
A true story, Layton chose to intercut the real-life characters with their fictional counterparts. Jared Abrahamson played Eric Borsuk and Blake Jenner was Charles Allen II, the get-away driver. Ann Dowd (“The Leftovers”) played librarian Betty Jane Gooch, who was tasered in the failed heist. The twenty-year-olds spent 4 years in federal prison.
Layton’s take on the attempted robbery in American Animals and the attempted sale of the $12 million dollar book at Christie’s was this: everyone wants to be special, and Spencer, who seemed unhinged then and now, convinced them all that “Nothing will happen unless you make something happen.” As the script said, “You can go through life with the expectation that something will happen that will make you special or unique. I realized I had to make something happen.”
Although Evan Peters was told not to talk to Spencer, the two met up on Twitter, anyway. Peters—who did not attend SXSW—was the perfect choice to portray a character (Spencer) who seems close to the edge, in terms of his grasp of reality. Child of a broken home, Spencer is shown in the opening scenes master-minding the theft of meat from a local locker and involving Warren. Warren’s parents did not really approve of Spencer; it is easy to see why.
The most sane and level-headed among the four seemed to be Spencer’s chief accomplice, Warren Lipka, who has since become a respected Lexington (KY) artist who draws birds. (Premier night audiences, including me, were all given a signed bird drawing of Warren’s). Warren appears onscreen and seems genuinely repentant for having taken part in the attempted heist. (“Did I just hurt someone forever to take part in something awful? We just tried to get past it, but there’s no getting past it.”)
At first, the planning is all fun and games, with Spencer taking a trip to Amsterdam (he claims) to set up a meeting with experts who could fence the stolen goods. Spencer also has the trio dress up as old people because, he says, “Old is the closest thing to being invisible,” a line I found particularly poignant because it is so true.
When the day of the heist (Saturday, February 14, 2004) actually arrives, nothing goes right. The plan to neutralize Ms. Gooch by tasering her goes horribly awry and the planned escape through an elevator to the basement gives way to clumsily carrying the large book that they haven’t dropped out through a packed library of onlookers.
The entire theft is a cluster-fuck, from start to finish, leading the get-away driver (Blake Jenner as Charles Allen II) to say, “This is my life you are fucking with, Man. You’ve killed us. You shot us all in the fucking head!”
Warren ultimately says, “The pain I caused my family was never worth the adventure.” All four of the youths did 7 years in prison. It was their letters from prison (plus a book written by Allen entitled “Mr. Pink”) that Layton used as source material for his film.
Said Layton: “These young men sort of fell into a fantasy. The film starts as a documentary and then moves to ‘Oceans 11’ style heist material. I thought it was a great story and I thought it was their honesty and their need to leave a mark that propelled them. I really loved the idea of a protagonist whose main problem is he really doesn’t have a problem so he went out to create one.”
Did the cast meet the real characters they portrayed, who are occasionally placed into the film to give different versions of what happened? Not until the premiere at Sun Dance, said Layton.
Layton wrote the script based on letters that the boys wrote to him from prison. However, when he interviewed the four about the exact nature of the heist, different participants had different stories, so he paused the production and “rewrote it a bit.” The fourth wall is broken, much as in “I, Tonya,” or “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang,” when the real players appear onscreen and speak to us.
Asked about the soundtrack, Layton said “Most of it we played while onset.” He commented that they would play “a track we knew we could never afford.” Despite that, “A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action” (Elvis Presley) is used during the robbery to great effect. Anne Nikitin was the Music Supervisor.
The cast mates revealed that they lived together for a week and a half to get to know one another.
Layton said he felt that, “We’re increasingly in a culture where we’re all under huge pressure to be special. Being successful is not enough. There is pressure to not be a failure. No one wants to be ordinary.” He felt that Spencer, in particular, “destroyed his life from the inside out, to have something to say.”
The film seems long, at 116 minutes, and moves slowly to establish the plot. It comes together nicely, however, and has good performances, ( the man ahead of me was snoring loudly at one point.) I watched a Sun Dance filmed review where the female member of the trio confessed to having fallen asleep.
At the very end of the film, when Warren stands up in his garage after an interview, a microphone boom is clearly visible.
The film is scheduled to open wide in June.
Directed and written by: Bart Layton
Cinematography: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier
Music: Anne Nikitin
(Connie Wilson is a veteran film critic (www.WeeklyWilson.com) and author who has published 40 books, including “It Came from the 70s: From the Godfather to Apocalypse Now,” and and an award-winning screenplay.)