True-life college boy crime caper touches on deeper issues
ON closer inspection, the fauna in suburban Kentucky isn’t as tame as moviegoers might reasonably expect.
Based on a true story — and interwoven with talking head interviews from the reallife protagonists upon whom it is based — this bold, selfconfident docudrama examines the strange and unnatural behaviour of four ordinary bipeds raised on a diet of heist movies and middle-class privilege.
Drinking competitions, humiliating initiation rites, porn-obsessed roommates … university isn’t all it was cracked up for budding artist Spencer Reinhard (The Killing Of A Sacred Deer’s Barry Keoghan). Disenchanted, he reconnects with his reckless, black sheep former friend, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters).
Hanging out in the local carpark, watching bored hooligans set fire to shopping trolleys, Reinhard describes to Warren his tour of Transylvania University’s rare book collection, which houses original editions of John James Audubon’s 19thcentury masterpiece Birds Of America, as well Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of The Species, from which the film draws its title.
Lipka seizes upon the idea of stealing the priceless books, which are guarded by a little old lady. And the two young men become so involved in the planning of the heist, the far-fetched scheme begins to gain its own momentum. A couple more associates — numbers man Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and cashed-up getaway driver Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) — are recruited to help them pull off the daring daylight robbery.
They adopt aliases such as Mr Pink and Mr Black after Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic Reservoir Dogs and disguise themselves as old men with fake beards. Everything falls apart, however, when the amateur gangsters come faceto-face with the physical reality of their romantic fantasy.
Their treatment of middleaged librarian Betty Jean “BJ” Gooch (Ann Dowd of The Handmaid’s Tale) is played with sobering naturalism. Although she doesn’t appear to have suffered any lasting physical injury, the film captures just how awful and humiliating the experience was for Gooch as she lay bound and terrified on the floor.
American Animals is a strange and compelling creature, juxtaposing the young men’s bad-boy roleplaying with observations from their older, perhaps wiser real-life counterparts and their families as they try to make sense of what happened.
Narrators are unreliable, memories prove contradictory, perspectives conflict. The real BJ Gooch makes an appearance towards the end of the film, offering some perceptive observations about her assailants.
An audacious, stylised college boy crime caper that touches upon deeper issues such as youthful rebellion and white male entitlement.