While Bart Layton’s first film, The Imposter, was technically a documentary, it often seemed to blur the lines between fictional and non-fictional film making, not simply because its subject matter was so unusual, but because it focused on an identity thief who had spent his life moving from one display of facticity and veracity to the next. That hybrid form continues with American Animals, which details a library heist that occurred at Transylvania University in Kentucky in 2004, but from two quite different perspectives. On the one hand, this is a documentary about the heist, as the four participants – Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk – discuss how they tried to steal twelve billion dollars worth of rare books from the university library. On the other hand, this is a dramatisation of the heist, with Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson playing Lipka, Reinhard, Allen and Borsuk respectively. While those two parts of the film start out as fairly discrete, they gradually fuse, whether through the participants inserting themselves into the dramatisation to engage with their fictional selves, or disagreeing about the way scenes are shot, or even suggesting edits of their own, to match events to their own memory of them.
At first, that resembles the quirky, hokey atmosphere of an Errol Morris film, not least because this is a fairly eccentric crime to start off with. Whereas most heist films are focused on gold, or jewels, or hard cash, the targets in this case were some of the rarest books in the United States, with a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America and Darwin’s Origin of Species being the most prized of all. Interestingly, however, that sense of eccentricity never quite makes its way from the documentary to the dramatisation, which situates all four of the main characters in a drab, downbeat, depressing milieu in which the endless sprawl of Lexington suburbia makes them all yearn, in one way or another, for a life-altering experience, an adrenalin hit that will make them feel as if they are really alive, and an invigorating future is possible. That’s especially the case with Reinhard, who is at the centre of the film, and who is introduced searching for the suffering required to turn him into a great artist, and to allow him to paint a truly great self-portrait, along the lines of the Picassos and Rembrandts hung on his bedroom wall. While framing the heist itself as a work of art is a staple of the genre, that takes on a new intensity when the targets are themselves artworks, so it quickly feels as if Reinhard’s ultimate ambition is to somehow absorb the artistic import of the Audubon prints, in particular, to the ambit and reach of his own work.
For that reason, the heist feels hypothetical for the great majority of the film, a way of staving off the future rather than a fully-realised prospect in and of itself. That’s especially the case in the opening act, where the presence of the actual participants actually prevents the film from imagining their motivation, or speculating on their personalities, to any great extent, instead suffusing the action with a drab naturalism that makes the crime feel even more urgent as a horizon of possibility – a necessity for the film to open up as much as the characters’ own lives. Time and again, that dour monotony is contrasted with the sheer singularity and irreproducibility of the books themselves, as Layton frames them devotionally within the broader architecture of the Transylvania library, to the point where they seem to represent a new kind of panoramic outlook and compositional orientation – a renewed awareness of the wideness of the screen – as much as precious objects in themselves. It feels apt, then, that both the Audubon and the Darwin are works of pioneering naturalism, since it also feels as if the four perpetrators are trying to suffuse their lives with the same exploratory initiative as those gentleman scientists, as the title would suggest, along with the use of Audubon’s illustrations at key junctures in the story.
Between the dreamlike quality of those illustrations, and the convergence of the heist with the future they can’t envisage, the heist quickly comes to feel like a fantasy, or a game – a way of treading water rather than something that is actually going to happen. Indeed, what initially looks as if it might be footage of the actual heist turns out to be a hypothesis of the heist that is paused and edited at a critical moment, while even the preparatory gestures that seem quite concrete – like Lipka’s trip to the Netherlands to visit some prospective buyers – are thrown into doubt by some of the disagreements amongst the actual characters at the end of the film. Whether or not the trip to the Netherlands does happen is ultimately beside the point, however, since it forms part of a broader pattern whereby the four friends treat the heist as a foregone conclusion, and the books as already stolen, before they even complete it, until the idea of the heist entirely eclipses the preparation for and challenges of the heist itself. As they watch one movie after another to learn how to perform the heist, and model their final plan on Reservoir Dogs, it seems even more unlikely that this heist can actually succeed, or even take place, so subsumed has it become into their endless rehearsals of it, and their tacit, shared assumption it has already taken place.
Like Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, then, American Animals speaks to a cinematic milieu in which the import of the heist is waned – and in which the heist can only exist as a comic effect, or in the strange hypothetical zone that sustains so much of the film. At times, it almost seems as if the only reason nobody else has stolen the books is that nobody really thinks in terms of heists any more, while it seems comically appropriate that the four friends dress up as old men to disguise themselves – the first image we see in the film – and that most of their guides are black and white movies, since the whole idea of the heist feels strangely out of date and irrelevant within the world of the film. In part, that’s because heist films typically depend upon a sharp differentiation of physical space, and a heightened awareness of physical space, that has been more or less dissolved by the fluidity of digital media, just as it is the endless fluidity and permeability of the friends’ suburban lives – here imagined as a nascent version of social media – that makes it so urgent that they use the heist to establish a threshold that makes the idea of escape meaningful to them once more.
In other words, escaping the heist, and getting away with the heist, is the real appeal of this heist, in what gradually comes to feel like a period drama about the heist itself – about the last period when the heist, and the sharp distinctions between physical space that it depended upon, could be comfortably relied upon to create a sense of cinematic escapism in turn. No surprise, then, that the single moment of jubilation in the film comes after the friends try the heist for the first time, only to find that there are more librarians on duty than they expected, forcing them to flee in panic. For a brief moment, they’ve managed to escape the heist without doing the heist, and harvested adrenalin from the heist without having done anything illegal, but it doesn’t turn out to be enough, as evinced in a beautiful sequence in which Reinhard tries to continue that sense of escape, that line of flight, by running along the suburban streets around his house, only for the descending sense of samness to make him realise that only actually carrying out the heist, can make that feeling of escape permanent – a revelation that comes to him in the form of a brilliant flamingo, which seems to have stepped straight out of Audubon’s pages to confront him with that inexorable realisation that the heist is the only real way for him to envisage escaping his life.
Yet when the heist does come, the next day, it has been so eclipsed by the escape that the characters have envisaged arising from it, that it is entirely divested of the logistical ingenuity that suffuses most heist films. Not only do the two characters tasked with getting the books refrain from putting on their costumes this time, but all they end up having to do is open a cabinet with one key, and smash through another cabinet with another. While the heist may not grow in complexity, however, it does grow in intensity, since accessing the cabinets means disabling librarian Betty Jean Gooch, played by Ann Dowd. This is the moment at which the heist truly becomes real, and loses the hypothetical quality that made it so appealing, as Layton brilliantly emphasises a whole range of little details – Borsuk stepping on Gooch’s glasses, Gooch wetting herself – to draw out the brutality of them tasering her and tying her up on the floor. In place of the logistical challenges of the traditional heist, it’s the impregnable materiality of Gooch’s body, and the plasticity she imparts to the heist in turn, that confronts the characters here, and haunts them most in the present, not least because Gooch’s only appearance as herself is also the last word in the film. And that unbearable physicality culminates with Borsuk having to turn Gooch over and extract the keys from the chain around her neck, all the while looking her in the eyes, in what you can imagine is the single image that most haunts the four characters as a whole.
For that reason, this image also undoes the escape that the heist was designed to afford, so it feels like a foregone conclusion that the remainder of the film sees the four characters trying, and failing, to escape and extricate themselves from the heist, rather than using the heist to escape from their own lives and futures. It starts with them literally struggling to escape the library after failing to make their way out of the basement, and continues with them failing to properly authenticate the few books they are able to salvage in order to sell them illegally. As it turns out, however, they never get rid of the books, which remain beneath Spencer’s bed on the day the police arrive to take him into custody, while all four are too depressed and dejected to leave town either, despite being certain that an email chain will lead the police to their doors, as indeed it does. Instead, they accept that the heist has simply trapped them in their lives more than ever before – intensifying, rather than relieving, the sense of inexorability that hangs over the first part of the own. For reasons I can’t quite describe, I found this last part of the film unbelievably moving, despite sympathizing with Gooch’s turmoil, perhaps because of the way in which Layton fades the characters into a broader sense of all the ways in which the lines of flight envisaged by late 90s and early 00s adolescents might turn out to be circumscribed and contained, as the film finally and fully situates in in the very future that the heist was designed to forestall and escape.