American Animals: Lessons Learned Outside of College
Director and Writer: Bart Layton
For those of you that don’t know, “American Animals” is about a 20-something artist and his eccentric friend who decide to stage an art heist at a local university. The movie tells a dramatic re-enactment of the planning and execution of the heist with the actual perpetrators playing as much of a role in the film as our lead actors. Spencer Reinhard (played by Barry Keoghan who is wonderful as usual) and Warren Lipka (played by an energetic and charismatic Evan Peters) plan to steal Birds of America, a collection of paintings done by 19th century artist John J. Audubon (real book, real person). With the help of another friend (Eric Borsuk as played by Jared Abrahmson) and some dude they don’t even really like (Chas Allen as played by Blake Jenner), they intend to induce a life-altering experience.
I didn’t even remember the plot of this movie before I committed to watching it. I simply saw the cover art in my list of movies I want to watch and chose it; I am very glad I made that decision. I generally like heist movies because I think they have the perfect mix of mind fuckery (How will they make it past those guards? What about the cameras? WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?), funny storytelling and potential for memorable characters. “Animals” met those expectations with a little extra, since Layton had the privilege of telling this story with the help of the people that actually lived it. It made for a truly singular viewing experience when Evan Peters’ Warren Lipka plays a scene the real Warren Lipka imagines differently, but checks in with him to make sure it’s all good.
The interlacing of real people/interviews with the drama and the shaky ground you’re on as a viewer since you don’t really ever know what the truth is, made this a great movie to watch. There were a few lulls which are my biggest fears for movies longer than 115 minutes, but they were short-lived and forgotten in relation to other scenes of utter captivation like the actual heist.
Now let’s get into this.
This is… true.
Now the movie starts with a kind of disclaimer: a black screen with simple white script reading “This is not based on a true story.” A moment later, “not based on” are omitted from the original phrase but their spaces remain to now read “This is a true story.”
You know when you see something and it’s odd so you know it means something, but you have no idea what it could mean so you just side-eye it for a second and move on? That’s what I did for that moment. Something was off with how that was presented. After finishing the movie, I realize why.
This is a true story. But what we don’t know about the story is as significant as what we do not. We could talk to everyone involved in the heist about why they did it, whether they regretted it, etc. but they will only tell us and we will only learn as much as they give us. Right?
“There are no books that tell you how to steal art.”
(but there are movies)
Let’s talk about how much Spencer (and his co-conspirators?) wanted a life-altering experience, but nothing they thought of was original. In the research phase of the heist, Spencer and Warren basically watched a bunch of classic heist movies in order to learn. Warren constantly referenced other movies during their planning from asking Eric about his red pill or blue pill moment (“Matrix”), talking about the end of “Shawshank Redemption” with Spencer and pointing out their need for “a bigger boat” to name a few.
This constant referencing to films and subtle acknowledgment of their lack of originality strikes me as odd since when I think of life-altering experiences (as one does), I think of them as singular journeys that can only be understood and gone on by an individual; not pre-meditated heists whose entire bases lie on heist films. But maybe that was just the point; We watch these two stoners marathon a bunch of heist films in preparation for their own to prove how unprepared they really are.
The Fifth Accomplice
I’m going to make the point that weed was a central character in this movie. Not only were Spencer and Warren constantly smoking, but its influence seemed to be all over this plan. When Warren first brought the heist up to Chas, the first thing he said was he thought they were smoking too much and from the looks of basically every scene before that, THEY DEFINITELY WERE.
Even Warren’s first imagining of how the heist would go was wildly dream-like and sexy compared to what it actually was which was A DISASTER. I mean come on, he imagined them strolling into the Special Collections room in their charcoal suits looking like a Motown boy group, sexily stunning the librarian so she’s immediately incapacitated, laying a red, silk sheet down to collect the massive book with ease in, then strutting out.
Now we know the reality of the situation was much more painfully slow and tense and sweaty and horrible with some pee and some puke and a lot of swearing.
That weed must’ve been good.
Now it’s time for some…
Shots! Shots! Shots!
I enjoy this shot because of its depth. Eric and Cas set up our foreground to lead us to Warren and Spencer while the gun points us all the way to the back of a car that seems to have a lot of trunk space. The rain also distorts this shot in a way that I enjoy looking at for some reason.
Two heads, one photo. One alive, one quite dead. One forgotten, one displayed?
Answer my Q’s!
- Can we address how Eric and Warren rummaged through the whole special collections area with no gloves? Why was THAT never addressed?
- Is it just me or do you not often see groups of 70ish-year-old men strolling around? Is this an unusual occurrence or am I an asshole?
Before we go…
- I quite enjoyed how no one wanted to take responsibility for bringing Chas on since he seemed kind of like an asshole both in and out of the movie… His vibe did not mesh well with the other three at all which gave us this gem of a line from the real Warren Lipka (TRWL):
“Spencer was Mr. Green because he smoked lots of green, was Mr. Black because he said his soul was black, I was Mr. Yellow because I was my mom’s sunshine and I named Chas Mr. Pink just to fuck with him.”
- TRWL belongs on screens. He was hilarious and interesting and engaging I mean wow. But can someone confirm or deny whether he actually cried during that one interview? I believe him, but he seems like a consummate entertainer so I’m unsure.
- Shout out to my girl Ann Dowd who played the librarian BJ, I will forever love any project she blesses us with
Rating (out of 10): 7
This was definitely fun to watch. The interviews with the real people involved made it even more interesting since Warren Lipka specifically was naturally such a character (hardy har har). There were times I got distracted since it did seem a tad too long, but those moments were quite limited in the face of the entire nearly 2 hours. Overall: fun film that I would definitely recommend.
Thanks for reading!