Privilege is a powerful intoxicant.
Just ask the four college students who, in 2004, tried to pull off a heist of rare books from Kentucky’s Transylvania University library that they believed they could sell on the black market for a cool $12 million.
Inspired by way too many Tarantino films and lulled into a false sense of cultural security by their easy, middle-class lives and reputations as anonymous, boy-next-door “good guys,” they think they’re getting one over on the system. The reality is that they’re just like the lowlifes who entertain them in the likes of “Reservoir Dogs” or “Animal Kingdom” — but just way more stupid.
That’s the point of director/writer Bart Layton’s engrossing “American Animals,” a film that takes a mild curiosity from a long-ago news cycle and elevates it into something singularly fascinating. While actors portray the criminals, their real-life counterparts — fresh from their seven-year jail sentences — and their still stunned family members offer commentary about what they were thinking at the time.
At first, this technique — sort of a cross between “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Dateline” — pulls the viewer out of the story. Yet, by the end, it complements what’s happening, adding a welcome layer of regret and melancholy.
Barry Keoghan (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) is Spencer, a quiet, aspiring artist who, while on a guided tour of the college library, becomes entranced by the rare-book collection in a private, appointment-only room. Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” is one of the marquee titles, though it’s John Audubon’s “Birds of America,” with its colorful illustrations, that especially calls to Spencer.
He mentions this to his reckless friend Warren (Evan Peters, “American Horror Story”), a guy always on the hunt for an angle, who immediately wants to know what the books are worth. What starts out as joshing around hardens into a hare-brained scheme to actually rip off the library. They just need a couple of additions to their crew.
They find them in gym-rat Chas (Blake Jenner, “Glee”) and brainy, wanna-be-FBI-agent Eric (Jared Abrahamson, the TV series “Awkward”), two more guys who think their dull lives are just movies waiting to have their happy ending. They hatch a plan involving disguising themselves as elderly people, that’s ripe with the stink of failure but, high on their own hubris, they think it’s the sweet smell of success.
Layton, a documentarian making his first feature, keeps things moving quickly, with shades of dark humor and an ear-catching soundtrack that ranges from Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” But, unlike Tarantino, it’s less of a woozy, blood-splattered lark and more of a sober and sobering look at what happens when boredom, ego, testosterone and idiocy congeal into one huge, life-damaging decision.