Spoiler Alert: This article contains a director Q&A and a few sensitive plot details.
AMERICAN Animals is one of the must-see ‘documentaries’ of the year.
Put together by the talented Bart Layton (The Imposter, 2012), it tells the ‘true’ story of a calamitous heist carried out in 2004 by four students at Transylvania University in Kentucky. As is Layton’s way, he uses a mix of commentary from those who were involved – everyone from the four young men, some of the parents and the head librarian (Betty-Jean Gooch) who was assaulted in the heist. This is then used to intersperse an acted out version of the unfolding events.
The result is a thrilling tale of bravado, foolishness, regret, naivety and recklessness of youth and lack of bottle. There is also an underlying trace of unreliable memory as the four mens’ version of events (now all out of prison and trying to build new lives) vary.
Most accusatory fingers point in the direction of Warren Lipka, the heart-beat of the gang (code name, Mr Yellow). Mercurial, hedonistic, charming, good looking and a fantasist.
The film draws out some excellent performances from those who act out the heist. Evan Peters is excellent as Mr Yellow. So is Barry Keoghan (The Killing Of The Sacred Deer) as Spencer Reinhard whose idea it is for the robbery of the priceless art he has seen in a visit to the university library (namely John James Audubon’s exquisite Birds Of America and Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of The Species).
The two students they draw into their plans – Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk – are also expertly played by Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson. Chas, all muscle and frightening speed in the driving seat of a car. Eric, cerebral and without an ounce of violence in his body.
The piece de resistance is Ann Dowd as Betty-Jean Gooch. Officious and protective of the art she guards from her locked room, Dowd’s Gooch is a far cry from the horrible, hateful Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale who hands out punishment as if it is a required part of one’s diet. Sensational acting.
As revealed in the Q&A session after the preview screening of the film at Curzon Soho on Tuesday September 4 (hosted by the excellent Ian Hadyn Smith, editor of Curzon Magazine), Layton read about the students’ story while on a flight six years ago. He then told Poppy Dixon (co-producer of The Imposter) about their tale. The more he researched, the more he wanted to know why they had embarked upon their ambitious plan.
He then began to correspond with the young men in prison, won over their trust and the idea of a documentary was hatched. ‘I made it clear they would not come out of the film as heroes,’ he said. ‘A lot of what they did they are ashamed of.’
He also managed to persuade Gooch to participate although he admitted she took a long time to come around. ‘She was the only person whose approval for the film I wanted, ‘ he said. ‘I took the movie to show her before it was finished and I would have changed it. But Betty-Jean loved it. We watched it at her house and her husband fell asleep after twenty minutes. She got hammered and proceeded to invite her friends to the movie’s premier in Lexington, Kentucky.’ Layton fared less well with the parents – only four of the eight agreed to appear in the film.
Although naïve, the students were rigorous in so many of the ways they plotted their robbery. They drew up meticulous plans of the building housing the art. Each had code names they would use throughout the robbery so as not to give their names away. So as well as Mr Yellow, Reinhard was Mr Green (in light of the amount of weed he consumed); Borsuk was Mr Black and much to his consternation He-Man Allen was Mr Pink.
They also disguised themselves as elderly gentlemen although this came to no good as they lost their bottle the first time they tried to commit the robbery. Second time around, they did not hide their faces although only Lipka and Borsuk went into the library. They even watched classic heist films in order to get inspiration (the likes of Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job).
All four involved in the heist – for which they each spent eight years in prison – bring something different to Layton’s work. Borsuk’s regret that Gooch was subjected to physical violence (something he was against right from the start). Allen’s obsession with his physical self and having the independence of mind to realise before anyone else that they had made too many mistakes to escape arrest. Reinhard, devoted to his parents and a truly talented artist (he now makes a living out of art in Columbia).
But most interesting is Lipka whom post prison has gone back to university to study film-making. Obviously traumatized by the breakup of his parents, as well as letting his father down by not carrying on with his sporting scholarship, Lipka remains an enigma.
Did he actually carry out parts of the heist’s plan that he claimed to have done? Did he actually go to Amsterdam to meet with people happy to fence stolen art? Or did he go but not meet them? Certainly his colleagues in arms do not believe him. Layton’s view is that Lipka went but did not meet anyone. We will probably never know the truth.
American Animals is a remarkable piece of cinematic work from Layton. The appearance at one stage of a flamingo in the middle of the road is a beautiful moment in the film. It stands before Reinhard, symbolising his love of art and the art they are attempting to steal (Audubon’s Birds Of America). It comes as Reinhard must decide whether to stick or twist – continue as a member of the heist team or jump ship. ‘He was searching for omens,’ said Layton. ‘Go forward or turn back?’
Layton insisted American Animals is not a documentary. ‘Memories are unreliable,’ he maintained. What is indisputable is that this is a mighty fine piece of work.