In the fall of 2004, four students at Kentucky’s Transylvania University spent weeks watching DVDs of Hollywood crime thrillers. It was their way of studying. Not for finals of course, but for their lark: one of the most audacious art heists in modern American history. And one of the most disastrously bungled.
Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen spent seven years in prison for tying up a school librarian, stealing prized artifacts worth $12 million from their university’s rare books collection—a first-edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species included—and, rather hilariously, driving to New York City and attempting to sell them at Christie’s, just four days before Christmas.
Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner, the young actors who play the college convicts in American Animals, Bart Layton’s wild new dramatization of the stooged caper, still have a lingering question even after having spent time with the ex-convicts they’re playing: Why?
“I think young men do stupid shit,” Peters laughs. “It’s just part of our DNA.”
On that one hand, then, the foursome gets it. Now, the four are among the industry’s most in-demand actors: Keoghan starred in Dunkirk and Killing of a Sacred Deer, Peters is part of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story troupe, Abrahamson co-stars in the Netflix sci-fi series Travelers, and Jenner is a Glee vet who graduated to the male ensemble of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! During a group interview ahead of American Animals’ release this week, each giddily recalls their own pre-fame buffoonery in their not-long-ago younger years.
But American Animals is more than just an indictment of stupid boys doing stupid shit, or a popcorn blockbuster about a band of hapless student robbers. Bart Layton’s unusual take on the true crime genre swaggers up to the question of how to best tell such a crazy story—documentary, or feature dramatization?—and cackles it in its face.
Essentially taking a matchstick to the cinematic rulebook, American Animals features the four actors recreating the heist with to-camera, docu-style narration from the four actual men who did it.
It’s a trip of a viewing experience. As each guy tells their version of the truth, the actors sometimes re-stage scenes multiple times to reflect each narrator’s version. The result is a fast-and-furious dramatization that carries an air of Dateline-style journalistic weight as, years after being released from prison and over a decade removed from the event itself, the four boys grapple with why they did what they did and the ways in which it changed their lives.
It all ends up revealing a sad truth about four emblematic millennials who were raised in a culture constantly telling them they need to be special: They did it so they’d have a story to tell.
“It’s an adventure,” Peters, who plays rallying cry ringleader (and mega personality) Warren, says, inciting a chorus of agreement among his co-stars.
“Right! An adventure!” Abrahamson echoes. “Warren pitched it to them as a victimless crime. So if I was that age and I had a friend come and say we could make $12 million for books, I think I’d definitely consider it. And it’s not like they’re going into a bank with guns or anything like that. They didn’t think that anyone would get hurt. So I think as a young man, you’re attracted to that before you’re thinking about repercussions or stuff like that. It’s like why not?”
They’re all quick to note that the group didn’t just wake up one day and decide to rob the school. They planned meticulously for weeks, rehearsed their roles, staked out locations, timed a getaway car, and followed every blueprint laid out in the library of Hollywood crime thrillers they watched to ensure they’d get away with millions of dollars, a great story to tell, and nobody hurt.
But for all those heist thrillers they watched, they seemed to ignore the fact that, with just a handful of exceptions, even in Hollywood it doesn’t usually work out for the robbers in the end. “I guess that’s the part where they’re like, ‘It’s just the movies…’” Abrahamson laughs. Peters nods: “‘That’s not how it will be in real life! We’ll get away with it!’”
That may be true, but it still doesn’t make it any less baffling that these four guys, who in their docu-style narration present as smart, reasoned, and from generally good upbringings, thought they could really get away with it. Is it delusion? The naivete of youth? Ignorance?
One possible answer the actors came up with was pack mentality.
“I grew up with a group of friends, and we did a bunch of stupid shit,” Jenner says. “But if I did it alone, I’d get cold feet and be like, ‘Yikes, oh shit!’ When you’re with a group of friends you sort of feel invincible.”
“And no one wants to be the one who chickens out,” Peters says. “So everyone is elevating it to the next level.”
While the heist was, yes, carefully planned, that plan was, as we watch it play out in American Animals, patently ridiculous.
To disguise themselves in order to walk through the school library unnoticed, they dressed as old men with wigs, fake mustaches, and old-age makeup that’s about as convincing as you’d expect from four straight boys in college. They used a taser to neutralize the librarian who sees them, and contacted an accomplice in Amsterdam to fence the books. A minivan was their getaway car. Barely in their twenties, they marched into Christie’s with rare books as if it wouldn’t be instantly suspicious.
It’s one thing to be a listless millennial and do something outrageous so that you gain life experience. Four young actors who made the leap to try to make it in Hollywood certainly understand that. But it’s another to stage an outrageous art heist with considerable jail time as a likely repercussion.
Jenner says he understands the angst of the millennial generation; obviously, he is one. “But there’s positive and negative ways you can channel that energy. Blindly coming into an art form that you’re passionate about, or just like sitting on your couch eating a Lunchable and being like, ‘Where’s my money?’”
Or, breaking into your university’s rare books collection, stealing priceless artifacts, and being like, “Where’s my money?”
Maybe it was the adrenaline, Peters suggests.
“When I was kid we loved stupid crap like deer mounting. You mount Christmas reindeers to look like they’re fucking. That is what we would do when were kids.” Everyone doubles over laughing and he continues to explain. “You go out late at night and do it and are chased by the guy at the front door. It’s scary and it’s funny and fun. I think this is that but it’s also taken to a whole other level.”
“Me and my friends did the same kind of thing,” Jenner says “We didn’t make deer have sex. But there would be security going in our neighborhood. We would do nothing wrong. We would see the security and make sure they saw us, and then duck like we did do something wrong and see if they’d chase us, which 99 percent of the time they would.”
Keoghan, who has kept mostly quiet during our conversation, is almost breathless laughing, and finally speaks up. “I didn’t have to do that,” he says. “They would chase us no matter what.”
It’s here that Peters makes the aforementioned pronouncement, the one that, while slightly reductive, might serve as a good tagline for the film, and why so many of us can somehow relate to it: “Young men do stupid shit.”