Usually, when we think of heist movies, we imagine slick tuxedo-clad men waltzing into casinos or, after Ocean's 8, glamorous women stealing jewels from the Met Gala. American Animals, a heist movie that lands in theaters in June, is not one of those movies. Rather, it's the story of a botched art heist carried out by amateurs — and it's based on a completely true story.
On December 17, 2004, four stand-up, straight-laced, 20-something Kentucky boys robbed the rare books library of Transylvania University, walking away with trove of valuable manuscripts worth $750,000. This audacious crime is certainly fodder for a fascinating movie, but American Animals aspires to be more than a conventional “based on true events” movie, like Molly’s Game or I, Tonya of late. Director Burt Layton, whose background is in documentaries, employs an experimental format to inject a layer of reality into the movie’s fictionalizations.
At the movie’s start, you’re introduced to two sets of the heists’ main players. There’s the fictional set: Barry Keoghan (he of Dunkirk’s most heartbreaking twist) as heist originator Spencer Reinhard, Evan Peters as mastermind Warren Lipka, Blake Jenner as Chas Allen, and Jared Abrahamson as Eric Borsuk. Then, there are the four actual operatives of the so-called "Transy Book Heist," who provide a running commentary on the movie’s fictionalization. On the process of reliving the events that landed him in prison for seven years, Lipka told People, “I wouldn’t necessarily call it enjoyable.”
Layton didn't let the two sets of Kentucky boys — real and fictional — interact. "In the simplest terms, the guys were 10 years older, and for most of those years they'd been in prison," Layton told Rolling Stone. "They were different people. And if you're playing me in a film, and I did something bad, I'm [probably] sitting here going, 'Hey, listen, I wasn't like that, I didn't mean to hurt her – don't make me out to be too violent.' Because all of those guys are really likable and relatable people, I wanted them to be liberated from any sense of obligation.”
So, what landed these four college students in jail for seven years? The seed for the heist was planted early, during Reinhard's freshman year at Transylvania University. He was brought into the Special Collections Library, which housed extremely valuable manuscripts. There, he saw what would ultimately become the motivation for the heist: Birds of America by John James Audubon, a 250-pound set of life-size bird engravings valued at $12 million, one of 200 in existence. When Reinhard realized the only person watching over this invaluable collection was a librarian named Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), his curiosity was piqued. Could he take on this challenge?
Not long after that orientation, Reinhard brought up the library visit to his high school best friend, Warren Lipska, who was attending the University of Kentucky at the time. According to an exposé published in Vanity Fair in 2004, the friends’ conversation began casually. “I said, ‘Twelve million dollars, just sitting there? They got security around that?’ Lipka recalled to Vanity Fair. “Nonchalantly, very nonchalantly, I mean, just kind of shooting it between us. So I kind of go, ‘That would be pretty crazy, wouldn’t it?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that would be kind of crazy.’”
After that casual conversation, Lipka was determined to pull off the heist. Lipka delved into the art world to find a buyer for the not-yet-stolen books. He traveled to New York, and later to Amsterdam, under the name “Terry,” chasing an art dealer. The dealer in Amsterdam agreed to buy the goods only if they could be authenticated, which Lipka planned to do at Christie’s in New York.
Reinhard and Lipka couldn’t pull of the heist alone. The duo knew who would round out their team: Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, their co-conspirators in a previously formed fake ID business. The foursome sketched out the plan over the course of their summer vacation after freshman year, using nicknames from Reservoir Dogs to identify each other. According to he final plan, Lipka would take care of Gooch via Taser; Borsuk would carry the Audobon book out of the library; Allen would be waiting with the car outside. Reinhard, a student, was waiting outside, so no one recognized him. Originally, they were to do this dressed as old men, though that aspect was abandoned.
Surprise, surprise. The plan, which was carried out during their finals season, didn't go smoothly. Snag after snag occurred. Gooch wasn't knocked out with the Taser, so Lipka had to bind and gag her. Once in the Rare Books Library, Lipka and Borsuk stuffed manuscripts into their backpacks and onto bedsheets. After unlocking the glass case, the transportation of Audobon's heavy book proved to be complicated. Lipka and Borsuk were seen by a librarian in the stairway, and chose to drop the book and run. However, the manuscripts in their backpacks proved to be valuable as well. They walked away with riches like the first edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species and 20 Audobon pencil drawings.
It took three weeks for the FBI to catch the boys, though they nearly got away with it. “The truth is, but for one big mistake, they probably would have gotten away with it,” a detective with the Lexington police told Vanity Fair. The details of the boys' undoing — from a failed trip to Christie's to a botched email address — are all depicted in the movie, so we won't spoil them here.
The movie's origin story is almost as fascinating as the movie's inspiration. While in prison, the four men were approached by various documentarians and film producers about turning their story into a movie. After reading about the case in an in-flight magazine, Layton, a documentarian, wrote them each letters in prison. From the pen-pal correspondence came American Animals, an intelligent hybrid of documentary and fiction — and something the four men were enthusiastic to participate in.
“We were really careful,” Borsuk told Vulture. “We just didn’t want it to end up being a movie where everyone looked slick and over-glamorized. We really wanted to find someone willing to tell a different kind of story. To try something new — something raw and brutal and honest.”
You can decide if they succeeded in creating "something new" after seeing American Animals.