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A caper and its consequences in true-crime saga of ‘American Animals’

Actor Actor Evan Peters, subject Warren Lipka, actor Jared Abrahamson, subject Eric Borsuk, subject Spencer Reinhard, actor Barry Keoghan, actor Blake Jenner and subject Chas Allen, from the film "American Animals."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

One of the many allures of heist movies is the clockwork precision of seeing an audacious idea conceived and executed according to plan. The new film “American Animals” takes a very different approach — the characters’ grandiose fantasies go every kind of wrong.

After an opening title card proudly claims “This is a true story,” the movie tells the saga of a failed caper in which four male college students attempted to steal millions of dollars of rare books from Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., in December 2004.

In the movie, which is now playing in limited release and expected to expand throughout the month, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Charles “Chas” Allen II (Blake Jenner) make for an unlikely gang of criminals, all with seemingly bright futures ahead of them. Ann Dowd plays Betty Jean Gooch, the librarian who forms the moral center of the film, and Udo Kier plays an international fence of stolen goods.

In telling the story, writer-director Bart Layton intercuts the narrative told with the actors and documentary interview footage shot with the real four wanna-be criminals, their families, Gooch and others. The documentary sections provide a counterpoint to the glossy, aspirational cool of the fiction, even as the characters become more and more convinced they are living inside one of the heist movies (like “The Killing” or “Reservoir Dogs”) they watch as planning tools and inspiration.

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“For me it’s the difference between watching a movie and participating in it,” the London-based Layton said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. “The grammar and the question of point of view, which is something I obsess about endlessly, is expressly trying to make you root for the wrong guys. So when the rug gets pulled from under them and you come crashing down into reality, we also feel, ‘I was sort of complicit in this.’ And I think that is how you get to understand more of the why of it.

“In their minds it was ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ and in reality it was ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ” Layton added. “And that moment when the fantasy crashes into reality should feel like, ‘This isn’t the movie I signed up for.’ ”

In their minds it was ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ and in reality it was ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’

Writer-director Bart Layton on ‘American Animals’

Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton makes his dramatic feature debut with "American Animals."
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times )
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For Lipka, now 33 and who served more than seven years in federal prison and just recently graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia, returning to the saga of the robbery and assault of Gooch brings up some understandably mixed feelings.

“It’s pretty complicated. I’m not necessarily the hero, am I?” said Lipka in a recent phone call from Philadelphia. “The whole reason I’m a part of this thing is because of Bart. He was there from the beginning, to talk us through and explain what he’s trying to do. Once you realize what he’s trying to do, it feels almost lucky that he’s using the story as a vehicle for something, actually using it for some good.”

Layton’s previous feature film was the 2012 documentary “The Imposter,” which included fictional re-creations in telling the story of a Frenchman who tried to pass himself off to a Texas family as a missing relative.

Layton first came to the collegiate heist story from a clipping someone sent him, which led to discovering an extensive 2007 Vanity Fair article by John Falk. The filmmaker eventually began an extended correspondence with all four of the would-be robbers while they were still incarcerated.

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Layton’s script laid out that sections of the film would be documentary interviews with the four men, with dialogue in the screenplay drawn from what Layton thought they would say based on their correspondence. When he actually shot those interviews, the participants didn’t always say exactly what he’d expected, so Layton rewrote some of the screenplay before shooting with the actors.

“When I first read it, I was really drawn to the fact that it was a true story,” said Peters, “but also that it was these guys who were in the suburbs, had a great life set out for them, they had no real problems — other than that they felt like what they were doing wasn’t different, it wasn’t extraordinary and the meaning of life wasn’t quite fulfilled by what they were told they should do. And that was something that resonated with me.”

Even though all four of the real-life robbers were available to the production — Lipka even briefly appears as himself in a scene with Peters to complicate a recollection — Layton was wary of having his actors spend too much time with their real-life counterparts.

“He wanted us to find our own characters from within ourselves,” said Jenner. “We had free range to build these characters from scratch, so even though they are real people, he wanted us to have some skin in the game and find our way through it from point A to point B creatively.”

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“My logic was [the real guys are] not the same people,” said Layton. “They’re 10 years older, and most of that 10 years has been in prison. They’ve had a lot of time to post-rationalize everything. And I wanted each of my actors liberated from that.”

Evan Peters in a scene from "American Animals."
(Orchard )

As the story moves forward and the guys are portrayed as less cool and more obviously clueless, it puts viewers in a complicated position of being uncertain who or what they are rooting for, and conjures the unusual feeling of wanting the heroes of the story to fail.

“You’re rooting for the guys,” said Peters. “You’re rooting for them to find the happiness and the peace that they want, but you’re also going, ‘You idiots, what are you doing? You’re ruining your lives and making this huge mistake.’ ”

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For Layton, it was important that no matter how much an audience might naturally be inclined to sympathize with the guys, that the true cost of their actions, the pain and damage they inflicted on others, be presented as a counterbalance.

“That’s one of the questions I really wanted the audience to be left pondering,” said Layton. “Did they get what they wanted, or are they right back where they started?”

I had 87 months to think about why I did what I did and where it landed me.

Warren Lipka, one of the real-life subjects of ‘American Animals’

The way in which Layton’s film circles the question of why the quartet really did it — for the money, the excitement or some existential need — and what they actually got out of the experience is not lost on Lipka.

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“I had 87 months to think about why I did what I did and where it landed me,” Lipka said. “And, no, I don’t have a problem with how [the film] presents it.”

“It’s got a weird relationship to consequences,” said Lipka of his story. “In no way am I advocating that anybody does anything like this, ever. It’s just that, in a way, doing the things and going to prison and being removed from society and being placed in a place unlike anything we had ever known or could ever imagine — that’s in the end how I was motivated to figure out things. To figure out who I wanted to be.”

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Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

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