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'American Animals' Uses Documentary Techniques To Tell Story Of Kentucky Book Heist


A new crime caper movie opens today based on a Kentucky library theft known as the Transy, as in Transylvania University book heist. The film is called "American Animals." It's from a filmmaker who's previously made only documentaries, and he uses the same techniques here. NPR critic Bob Mondello says the result is a head-trip fantasy.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Spencer's a dweeb, as played by Barry Keoghan. Warren's charismatic, as played by Evan Peters. And they're both screw-up college students, as you'll gather while they're rooting through a restaurant's trash bin to liberate unused cuts of meat.


BARRY KEOGHAN: (As Spencer Reinhard) Warren, what are we doing here?

EVAN PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) Did you know we are the fattest nation on the planet, and we still throw nearly half of our food away? Do you eat avocados? They over-order. I always...

KEOGHAN: (As Spencer Reinhard) No, I'm fine.

PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) Run. Run. Run. Run. Run. Run.

MONDELLO: When he's not following Warren's lead, Spencer is reasonably studious. He's on an orientation tour of the university library when he first sees the book that is going to change their lives.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) John James Audubon is responsible for this masterpiece here - first edition "Birds Of America."

MONDELLO: Enormous and with every page a painting, it is exquisite inside a glass case in a locked room, clearly valuable.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So how much is it worth?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, we don't discuss the worth of our books, but I can assure you that Mr. Audubon would never have imagined that his book would be the most valuable in existence.

MONDELLO: Now, that's worth repeating, and Spencer does to Warren as they're driving around after a party.


PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) Book - in what world can a book be worth $12 million dollars?

MONDELLO: But filmmaker Bart Layton has already started interfering with the way we're hearing this story by bringing in the actual criminals.


SPENCER REINHARD: (As himself) I think I told him about it in the car.

MONDELLO: That's the real Spencer, older now after spending years in jail for his part in the heist. And here's the real Warren.


WARREN LIPKA: (As himself) People said that I was the ringleader, but that's just not true. There was no ringleader.

KEOGHAN: (As Spencer Reinhard) Hey, pull in here.

MONDELLO: The actors are still on screen, their real selves kibitzing from interview footage. And then things get stranger. The young Spence gets out of the car, and the camera pans to show him going into the convenience store, and then it pans back to find the young Warren in the car with the real Warren.


PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) So this is how you remember it.

LIPKA: (As himself) Not exactly, but if this is how Spencer remembers it, then let's go with it.

MONDELLO: Confusing - not a bit. Writer-director Bart Layton employs all the tricks in the docufiction playbook - reenactments, talking heads, reliably unreliable narrators - to do two seemingly contradictory things really effectively. He creates a uniquely tricky heist flick, and he makes sure the audience can keep up. That's more than the would-be criminals can do. There are soon four of them, and they all seem to be taking their cues from different crime flicks - "Reservoir Dogs," "Ocean's 11," "Goodfellas," "The Italian Job" - alas, real-life a little more complicated.


JARED ABRAHAMSON: (As Eric Borsuk) Go. Go. Go. Go.

KEOGHAN: (As Spencer Reinhard) Eric, where are the books, huh?

MONDELLO: More than that, where is Warren?


MONDELLO: Oh, there he is. The gang that couldn't shoot straight meets the gang that can't drive straight.


KEOGHAN: (As Spencer Reinhard) Drive. Drive. Drive.

MONDELLO: Layton cleverly steals moves from the same crime flicks his characters are trying but failing to steal their moves from and comes up with a caper that's funny and slapsticky but also a commentary on the intersection of art and real life. The characters in "American Animals" make lots of mistakes, but their biggest appears to be that they believed Hollywood's outlaw myths. That might have worked out better for them if they'd just known something about heists besides what they'd seen in the movies. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.