Ben Cherry reviews American Animals, showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until this Thursday (tickets available here).
Films based on a true story have always been popular. Recently, films based on a true story try to subvert the usual biopic tropes, with the characters talking directly to the audience and commenting on what is going on around them. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is the most obvious example, where it not only uses a classic narration, but it also includes Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort telling us not to worry about the finer details and to basically enjoy the debauchery and madness of his story.
I watched the trailer for American Animals prior to watching the film and it looked like a fairly enjoyable heist movie, whereby the heist is being conducted by young university students and the usual pitfalls of embarking on a life of crime. More refreshingly however, the film takes the idea of characters breaking the fourth wall and instead, places the real-life counterparts on the screen, talking to the audience through the action and giving their opinion as to what went down. It mixes the true crime documentary template of talking heads, with the feature-film narrative that stars Evan Peters (American Horror Story) and Barry Keoghan (The Killing of Sacred Deer) as the two masterminds of the heist, Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard respectively.
The film is set in 2003/2004 when Spencer Reinhard starts University in Kentucky and realises that university isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. His only real friend is Warren Lipka, who is described by Reinhard’s actual parents as a ‘bad influence.’ Evan Peters portrays Lipka with a wild energy and he is both likeable and slightly annoying, with his unpredictable outbursts and cavalier attitude towards life. Both friends hate their universities and end up going through a quarter-life crisis where they start to realise that their lives are ‘average’ and they are on a set path that has been decided for them.
To break out of this dead-end cycle, Spencer explains that his university’s library keeps rare and expensive books. More specifically, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Lipka jumps at the idea and they plan to steal the books (worth millions of dollars) and to sell them to a buyer. They then recruit two more accomplices, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk, (also interviewed) and then the plans for the heist ensue.
All the major participants of the story turn up and are interviewed on camera and the beginning of the film wryly informs us that ‘This film is not based on a true story,’ before scrubbing out the text to explain, ‘This film is a true story.’ There are plenty of true stories that are adapted and with the recent Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) steam-rolling through theatres, you have to wonder how much of it is true and how much of it has been exaggerated. American Animals tackles this issue head-on and in one sequence, both Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard describe a potential buyer, however the actor is portrayed differently depending on who is describing him. They then decide the small details don’t really matter and that is just how they personally remember the event.
It is an interesting way to tell a true story. Whilst the events they are re-telling would stick in the memory much more vividly than an average day at the office, it does ask the question of how accurate all of these other ‘based on a true story’ films are.
American Animals’ first half is fun and captures the headiness of being young and independent for the first time. The characters base their idea on various classic heist films and how the heist would work in comparison to the film they are riffing on. There are some great nods to Ocean’s Eleven (2001) The Killing (1956) and Reservoir Dogs (1992) where of course the characters argue about who should be Mr. Pink.
The second half however, is significantly darker and the reality of the heist becomes less glorified and the main point of contention is how they will deal with the female librarian who is the sole person getting in the way of the rare books. The consequences of their actions really come into effect and the main heist sequence is grippingly tense and at times quite scary.
American Animals is a unique true story and the docu-drama elements work together seamlessly and the interviews bring the film and the story to life. True crime documentaries are going through a golden age and this film is another great addition to the genre.