By Mark Saldana 

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

On December 17, 2004, four childhood friends attempted to steal several highly valuable books from the Transylvania University Library.  This story and the events prior to and after the theft form the basis of this true crime film directed by Bart Layton.  Layton intercuts his dramatic reenactment of these events with interviews with the real people. The resulting feature movie makes for a crazy, but facinating, compelling and highly entertaining piece of heist cinema.  And the superb performances by the cast make the experience all the better.

Evan Peters stars as Warren Lipka, an unhappy and restless college student who prefers partying and petty crime to the pressures of being a college athlete and the problem of his dysfunctional family life.  Lipka’s best friend Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) may not have the same troubles at home, but is simply bored with the typical college life.  A budding talented artist, Spencer would rather enjoy exciting life experiences as opposed to studying and facing the realities of growing up.

After Spencer takes a tour of his library’s archive section of valuable books, including the priceless Birds of America by John James Audobon, the thought occurs to him that it would be easy to relieve the university of these rarities.  Feeling low about his familial problems, Lipka loves the idea and decides to make the heist his pet project.  The men recruit friends Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Erick Borsuk (Erik Abrahamson) to asist them.  The main problem is that none of these young men have any real experience committing an intricately planned and executed heist.  After all is said and done, the job may have been an experience of a lifetime, but is one they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

Written and directed by Bart Layton (The Imposter), American Animals might be a drama at its core, but it is a film that entertains on several levels.  Layton and his cast (as well as the real people) give their audience plenty of comedic material which is certain to elicit hearty laughs.  The inept ballsiness of these young men nearly had me crying laughing.  As smart as some of these real characters are, they were so in over their heads and completely unprepared for the realities of pulling off a precise heist.  Layton gets very real, though, in portraying the complications of the job and the consequences of their actions. His film is, after all, a cautionary story.

If the film does get any attention for awards nominations, it is most deserving in ther acting department.  Barry Keoghan, who gives an utterly frightening performance in last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, gives a more subdued turn as the pensive and mostly reserved Spencer Reinhard.  Evan Peters gives an enthralling and exhilarating performance as ringleader Warren Lipka.  Both Blake Jenner and Erik Abrahamson shine brightly in their respective roles also.  The film also features memorable turns by Ann Dowd and Udo Kier.

I must also applaud the real men about whom this story is.  Their candidness and honesty in their interviews make the film much more riveting. I highly recommend this movie for fans of true crime stories.  Bart Layton does a great job of telling this crazy and sometimes amusing story.   I am certainly impressed with his filmmaking and storytelling chops and look forward to what he does next.

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