based on a true story”
Spencer Reinhard was sitting in the passenger seat of Warren Lipka’s car, smoking a blunt, when he told his friend about the 12 million dollar book that sat in the special collections room of Transylvania University’s library. At least– that’s how he remembers it. Lipka originally recounts that this life-altering moment happened at the back porch of a party, but suggest the storytellers just “go with it” when referring to Spencer’s version of events.
This theme of unreliability, of altered reality, fuels Bart Layton’s 2018 docu-drama American Animals. Bringing his expertise in the documentary field, Layton tells the nearly unbelievable story of how four middle-class suburbanite white college students came to attempt a multi-million dollar art heist. Blending seamlessly between actual interviews with the newly out of prison quartet– comprised of Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen II– and dramatizations of their memories, Layton constructs a narrative filled with narcissism, affluenza, and skewed perception.
Before Borsuk and Allen were recruited to the team, Lipka and Reinhard had begun to dream up a reality where they were “special”, not just privileged college-going white kids, but someone who mattered. Played by two of indie cinema’s sweethearts– Evan Peters as Lipka and Barry Keoghan as Reinhard– viewers are taken on a (mostly stoned) ride from fantasy to execution as the boys try to escape their own realities.
“you’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special”
A solemn real-life Lipka gives an explanation in his interview that is cut in towards the end of the film, just as we’re seeing the boys’ fictional counterparts arrested in their bedrooms. He says that as a child, you’re told over and over again that you can do anything, that you have the world in front of you. But when you begin to mature, you realize that “…You’re not special. And so the idea that we were doing this extraordinary thing absolutely appealed to us. Appealed to me.”
This woe-is-me excuse is Lipka’s attempt to absolve his responsibility in the choices that he made. It completely leaves out that this heist, from the beginning, was not planned to be innocent and victim-free. The key component that Lipka fails to mention is BJ Gooch, the librarian that was in charge of the office of special collections. The librarian that, from the first meetings discussing the heist, Lipka admits will have to be tased and subdued so they can acquire the books she protects. As the heist sequence is played out with the actors, we see BJ Gooch violently assaulted, tased, and tied up by Lipka as his master plan begins to unravel. Everything begins to fall apart from the minute they enter the library, because, contrary to their prior belief, this was real life– not a Hollywood heist movie.
As viewers, Layton’s editing of the film consistently yanks the audience away from being a passive viewer of a true crime film. Splicing in interviews with the boy’s parents, the boys themselves, and BJ Gooch works as a reminder that this really happened. There were consequences, there were victims, and there were perpetrators. Audiences begin to build up a fictional world they can disconnect from, led by the charming pair of stoned, witty best friends portrayed by Peters and Keoghan, until they’re interrupted by talking heads labeled “THE REAL SPENCER REINHARD” and “THE REAL WARREN LIPKA.” Suddenly, the announcement that “This is a true story” made at the opening of the film is translated by Actual People who were a part of the Actual Event, and the audience is forced to let go of their expectations of this film as one they can watch as a spectator. This happened in their own world— it was done by people who could easily be their neighbors.
Further, as the Real Reinhard and Lipka tell their versions of the story, there is a question that lingers on who is telling the truth. Important moments– like when Reinhard told Lipka about the 12 million dollar book– are told differently by the two leads. There is no conclusion to who introduced the actual idea of the heist, and though Warren is the teammate who pushes the prospect from concept to tangible plan, Spencer, Eric, and Chas don’t reject his advances. They each willingly join in on the delusion that, regardless, the outcome of the heist can only be positive. Either they will get away with it and be “special”, or they don’t follow through and continue living their privileged suburban lives. Each boy is under the assumption that they deserve this type of fame or recognition without having to actually accomplish anything, because their whole lives they’ve been told how “special” they are.
The ability and opportunity these boys carried to completely disconnect from reality, from a world full of actions and consequences, is one that Barry Layton strips from the audiences the minute he introduces the “Real” perpetrators. Viewers are thrust into a whirlwind that is fueled purely by the attitudes of four white, middle-class men who have never faced adversity, are fueled by early-twenties testosterone, and lead by narcissism that has them believing they’re untouchable. We are forced to question if what these boys did is forgivable, whether they were a product of their environment, and if they are even telling the truth.
Each of these boys being out of prison and given the opportunity to tell their own stories on screen is a commentary in itself. Their failed heist, what we as a society are supposed to condemn them for, is what led to them being in a feature film. They are each free to pursue careers as told by the shots leading up to the credits. Warren is back in college for filmmaking, Reinhard is an artist, Borsuk is a writer, and Allen is a personal trainer. The natural way they have been able to reintegrate into a society that is supposed to condemn these types of actions is unsettling, and despite the shots of their regretful, dejected faces intercut between the words of BJ Gooch, the woman they violently assaulted, it leaves viewers wondering if the boys truly understand how lucky they are to be living their current lives.
Is it right that the same motivation that led the group to theft and violence– to be noteworthy and special– is being satisfied even after they failed? Should we welcome criminals on screen to tell their stories if it serves as a reminder to an audience that the crimes we see fictionalized in film actually occur? Have we, as a society, become so desensitized to men committing violent crimes that without these documentary interviews, American Animals would be unremarkable and forgettable?
That being said, the film is a damn masterpiece. The acting, editing, and cinematography are all incredibly instrumental in making the film a new favorite of mine. But it’s not a simple, slick heist film like I went in expecting. It challenges not only the conventions of genre, but after it’s over, viewers are challenged to draw a line between art and reality– and identify when crossing that line becomes dangerous.