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True crime inspires “American Animals”


The four college students dress up as old guys for the heist of rare books. (Courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment)


Blu-ray and DVD; 2018; R for profanity throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: Commentary by director Bart Layton and actors

IN 2004, four upper-middle class college kids, in an attempt to upend their humdrum Kentucky lives and make millions of dollars, planned to steal rare books from a library.

To say the heist did not go well is an understatement, and in no way spoils the surprises in “American Animals,” a witty, original and irresistible film written and directed by Bart Layton. The English writer/director, who had previously only made documentaries, uses those skills to combine interview footage of the actual guys, family members, teachers, and others, with a cinematic version of the story.

Co-ringleader Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) organized the heist and pulled ideas from movies “Ocean’s 11” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

Lipka meets possible buyers at a bar in Amsterdam.

Starring Irish actor Barry Keoghan (“Killing of a Sacred Deer”; “Dunkirk”); Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”); Blake Jenner (“Glee”); Jared Abrahamson (“Hello Destroyer”) and Ann Dowd (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) – all terrifically believable – the film is by turns hilarious and touching, derivative and ingenious. The invention comes when Layton inserts the real perpetrators into scenes with the actors portraying them, such as when Spencer, the main protagonist played by Keoghan, is a passenger in a car, while the actual, now adult, Spencer stands on the street and watches the car go by.

This Lionsgate Blu-ray transfer is excellent, with all the detail and contrast necessary, natural skin tones and saturated colors. The soundtrack is also very good, with clear dialogue. An understated score by Anne Nikitin is very effective, with music cues such as Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”

Extras include a deleted scene, brief interviews with the main cast, and a stills gallery. The commentary by Layton, Keoghan, Jenner and Abrahamson is one of the best of its kind. Layton asserts the importance for viewers to realize he tried “to remain as close to the accuracy of what happened as possible.” To that end, a lot of the film was shot on location in Lexington, KY, where the events occurred.

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) built a model of the Special Collections Library room at Transylvania University that housed the rare books worth millions.

The interviews with the actual people involved took place a year before the film was shot. Layton wrote his script around the stories he was told. When there were instances in which Spencer and Warren (the two “ringleaders”) remembered differently, Layton cleverly – and humorously – managed to show both versions in the film. This way, he says, he let “the viewer in on the storytelling process.” Layton discusses his decisions on color palettes, with colors becoming more varied and intense as the heist becomes more of a reality, and the conspirators’ lives become more like a movie.

Layton notes inspirations for “American Animals” include “The Taking of Pelham 123,” “Heat” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” He explains the use of a hand-held camera for the heist scene to reflect the chaos and violence that took place. Jenner comments on the real case, in which “white privilege” came into play for Chas, whom Jenner portrayed. Layton recalls the film’s premiere at Sundance, which the four real guys attended, and how audience members had to be convinced they were not actors.

— Peggy Earle




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