CRIME CULTURE: American Animals

CRIME CULTURE: The year was 2003 and a quartet of college idiots were about to set out to their university library in one of the dumbest heists ever planned. Gary Johnston gives us his verdict on whether new doco-drama American Animals captures the spirit of their infamous criminal caper.

A Cunning Stunt. Or A Spoonerism.

It’s a truth, not universally acknowledged, as Jane Austin would undoubtedly have said had she ever ventured outside the confines of Northanger Abbey, that most crime isn’t committed by criminals, but by fuckwits.

Forget the fiction of clever, devious criminal masterminds so familiar from blockbuster movies, real crime, in the main, you can confidently ascribe to a collective group most accurately categorised as guileless and style-less, losers, boozers and jacuzzi users.

American Animals, the latest film from director Bart Layton, features a quartet of protagonists who perfectly fit such nomenclatures.

Using a blend of documentary and drama, the film – not based on a true story, but an actual true story – portrays an infamous ‘heist’ of 2003 in which four hapless college students, motivated entirely by greed, boredom and selfishness, planned to steal an extremely valuable edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and other rare books from their University library.

Although they initially consider it to be a sophisticated caper, it soon becomes glaringly obvious that the plan is destined to fail. Indeed, all but three of the would-be-stick-up-artists continually acknowledge its feebleness, only continuing their involvement because they’re convinced that, somehow, at some stage, common-sense will intervene.

That it never does, and the expected consequence of apprehension and imprisonment duly eventuates, says everything about how crime not only doesn’t pay but actually costs, leading to a legacy of embarrassment, humiliation and regret.

The driver of the robbery – not the getaway driver – but the chief character – “I wasn’t the leader, there was no leader” – is a character called Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) whose connection with reality is neatly summed up by his obvious pride in describing the tattoo he wears on his shoulder.

“It’s a dinosaur,” he says – “Tyrannosaurus Rex. Switching on a ceiling fan.”

The others display a level of incompetence only matched by their inability to resist Warren’s transparent and largely fabricated overtures.

Spencer Reinhard (the impressive Barry Keoghan), a pot- head who makes sketches of the crime scene he signs and then loses. Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), a nerd who eschews violence and therefore naturally becomes involved in the assault of the elderly library attendant. And Charles ‘Chas’ Allen III (Blake Jenner) – a wealthy jock who is recruited simply because he can bankroll the operation.

Footage of the real players, now out of the joint and attempting to rebuild their lives, describes how they saw themselves as cinematic crooks rather than real life ones, and in fact a number of famous crime movies are duly referenced – The Shawshank Redemption and Reservoir Dogs in particular.

As in the latter, they decide to give themselves aliases based on colours. Spencer, for instance, is Mr Green, ‘because he smokes lots of it’.

The fact that much of the genuine humour of American Animals comes from the real life fuckwits rather than the actors pretending to be fuckwits, is a strong testament to the skills of Bart Layton who manages to extract a mix of vulnerability and honesty from the
four through the manner in which they describe their involvement.

And, as is often the case with true crime, the real story is confused and contradictory, none of the protagonists have the same memory of it and there’s a strong suspicion that much of Warren Lipka’s claims of travelling to Amsterdam to meet up with international art thieves, may well have been entirely invented. No one, including Warren himself, is really sure.

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Betty Jean Gooch, the librarian assaulted during the botched heist is also interviewed and it’s to her great credit that, rather than coming across as a traumatised victim, she excoriates the would-be gangsters, typifying them as self-centred, covetous and utterly immature; it’s impossible to argue with her.

Whilst American Animals stands up as entertainment in its own right, it also demolishes the myth of how large-scale crime is often stylised – if not glamourised – by the media.

Even the notorious Great Train Robbery of 1960’s Britain, which netted more than £20 million in modern terms, as well as launching the ‘fame’ of the fugitive Ronnie Biggs, came unstuck due to the crooks leaving their fingerprints all over the farm cottage they used as their lair.

‘Dabs’ which immediately helped the police identify the robbers – all of whom had criminal records – were found on beer cans, ketchup bottles and a Monopoly set (they played with real money), making it an investigation which hardly required the deduction skills of Hercule Poirot.

A cleaner was actually engaged to visit the hideaway and destroy the evidence, but guess what? He forgot.

American Animals portrays this level of criminal ineptitude quite brilliantly.

Not so much a stick-up then. More, much more, of a cock up.

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About Gary Johnston 26 Articles
Gary Johnston is an author, academic and former parole officer with decades of experience in the criminal justice system. He is True Crime News Weekly's Melbourne correspondent. His book 'No Previous Conviction' was published in May 2017 and is available on Amazon.

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