With “Oceans 8” and “American Animals” now in theaters, heist movies are having a moment. It’s not hard to see why: During this chaotic chapter in the cultural history of the country, there’s nothing more fun than watching an elaborate cast of characters planning a near-impossible crime, one successfully pulled off with smooth moves, sleight of hand, and winks at the camera.
“American Animals” has become a surprise summer hit at the specialty box office, grossing nearly half a million dollars in its first two weeks. But it’s a different kind of heist movie than anything in the “Ocean’s” franchise. The crime draws from a real-life incident — when four college-aged Kentucky men attempted to steal some rare books from Transylvania University in 2004 — and director Bart Layton flips the script on the audience, by bringing in the real people involved to tell their story alongside the actors midway through.
At first, the documentary aspect is a jarring addition; with time, however, it infuses “American Animals” with more realism, and a degree of excitement surrounding the gamble in play. It’s especially impressive to watch the two main characters onscreen with their counterparts: Warren Lipka, played by Evan Peters, and Spencer Reinhard, played by Barry Keoghan. The movie also presents a unique opportunity to discuss the project with the actors and the criminals themselves, who have now served their time.
While Keoghan enjoyed the “smack of reality” that “American Animals” offers, his real-life counterpart Spencer Reinhard was less enthused about having a very dark moment in his life exposed on the big screen. But Reinhard also said the film as a cautionary tale that might also make the audience question their own reactions.
“It forces people to confront another side of a heist movie,” Reinhard said. “Us being in the movie and actually talking, I think that forces people to connect to the story in a different way and suffer through the heist experience in a unique way. You’re having fun and then all of a sudden you’re hit with this reality and you have to deal with your connection to the story and why it seemed so exciting when what we were plotting was this terrible crime.”
Keoghan said the movie’s acknowledgement of the story’s authentic roots made it stand out to him. “It’s great to be a part of a movie that’s fun but also gives you a smack of reality,” Keoghan explained. “It’s not ‘Oceans 11,’ it’s more like ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ so it’s nice to be in that kind of movie that goes from one extreme to the other.”
When Reinhard and Lipka decided to rob Transylvania’s library, they knew the rare books room held a multimillion dollar treasure trove that included a valuable copy of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” as well as John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.” Reinhard and Lipka eventually pulled in two friends, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, to help them pull off the heist. It didn’t go quite as planned: All four men were arrested and sentenced to seven years of jail time for their crimes.
Layton made a conscious choice to represent this dynamic visually, showing how the men assumed the crime would happen in their heads versus how it actually went down. But beyond this visual contrast, Reinhard said that the film stays true to the events. “One of the last things I ever wanted was for this story to be glamorized,” Reinhard said. “Or turned into a Hollywood version where there’s no importance put on victims or our parents or how we affected people.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Since Reinhard and his counterparts did time for their crimes, “American Animals” affords them the opportunity to explain why they regret their decision, as well as how much it affected their families and the victims.
While Reinhard acknowledged that he deserved to pay a heavy price for a stupid decision, he argued that felons deserve second chances. But the system hasn’t been set up to guarantee that outcome. “People might get seven years, but the road to getting back on solid ground once they’re outside of prison can be very difficult,” he said. “Society isn’t set up to make that any easier for them. It can be very hard to get housing, to get a job, every job application you have to put down that you’re a felon, and in the job market, there’s not really room for people that are checking that box.”
On his website, Reinhard has a selection of sketches entitled “Birds of Paradise,” which are drawings of federal inmates created during 2006-2012, when Reinhard was imprisoned himself. The large selection of sketches are topped with a simple quote: “Nearly 1 in every 100 adults in The United States is currently incarcerated, it is the largest prison population in the world.”
Reinhard was able to use art as an outlet and a means to stay positive during his seven year prison sentence. “I think [art] can have a major influence on people’s lives,” Reinhard explained. “I met lots of other people in jail who were passing their time by trying to explore their ability to paint or draw or being creative, something that maybe they had when they were a kid that was never encouraged, and so it was their second chance to get to do something like that. I saw people that really became passionate about it and were developing their abilities on the inside.”
For Reinhard, that experience led him to broader observations about society as a whole. “I think that it really is a shame that so little importance in the school systems is being put on art and creative endeavors,” he said. “So much pressure is put on kids to learn math techniques and science, but there’s not much room for anything else. Although I was separated from society, I was able to gain perspective on what I did and being able to paint and express ideas through painting was beneficial.”
“American Animals” is now in theaters.