American Animals: A Crazy True-Crime Story

Jared Abrahamson, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner and Barry Keoghan appear in American Animals by Bart Layton, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

American Animals uses a narrative/documentary hybrid approach in telling the absurd but true story of the Transylvania University library heist.

Flashback to the fall of 2003 if you will.  Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is touring the Special Collections archive at the Transylvania University library.  The freshman finds himself intrigued and fascinated by the artwork of John James Audubon.  Admiring the artwork, Spencer starts to get these absurd idea to steal the rare collection.  He manages to bring his longtime friend, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), in on the plan.  The two of them bring in other friends,Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), when they realize that their heist plan requires some extra hands.

Borsuk, an accounting major, had plans to become an FBI agent one day.  Those dreams went out the window when he joins the squad to steal the items from the library.  Chas, another Kentucky student, was recruited solely to serve as the getaway driver.  Spencer and Warren spent plenty of time watching some of the best heist movies ever.  Spencer starts having doubts when their initial attempt falls through.  This is because of a meeting taking place within the library.

These four students thought they had the plan for the perfect heist but life had other plans for them.  Ultimately, all four would spend seven years in federal prison before starting over with their lives. Vanity Fair has an article featuring the untold story back in 2015.

The narrative/documentary hybrid approach means that this is not the typical heist film.  However, writer/director Bart Layton manages to make it work for American Animals.  With four different people, there are four different accounts of what happened that year.  Who is telling the truth in the post-prison interviews?  It’s hard to tell after watching.  In any event, the narrative approach alone would have made for a compelling movie on screen.  Layton does a great job in weaving the narrative approach into the interviews.

I’m a Kentucky native so it’s beyond crazy that I only heard about the story when it was announced for Sundance.  The film does not put the Commonwealth of Kentucky in a bad light.  Rather, a few students happened to make bad decisions.  That said, there’s definitely some problematic areas such as when Warren decides that he no longer wishes to play college soccer for the University of Kentucky and meets with an athletic director named Bill Welton.  One can only assume that the filmmakers didn’t have the permission to use UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart’s name nor could they find someone who looks like him.

While a narrative approach would have been just as compelling, American Animals does right by their subjects.


CAST:  Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Udo Kier, and Ann Dowd
FEATURING:  Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, Chas Allen

Premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Narrative Competition, The Orchard and MoviePass Ventures will release American Animals on June 1, 2018.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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