There are a few intriguing questions raised by “American Animals,” a fact-based drama about the four college-age men who, in 2004, attempted a misguided heist of rare books — including John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” said to be worth $12 million — from the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.
Why did they do it? What have they learned from it? And will anyone really want to watch a movie about such foolish people who, during one abortive attempt to make off with the oversize volume of ornithological prints, disguise themselves — badly — as elderly men?
The answer to the last question, at least, is yes. Written and directed by Bart Layton, “American Animals” is fascinating, funny and, in the end, deep. It’s a thematic cousin to the English filmmaker’s similarly probing and improbable “The Imposter,” a 2012 documentary about a young French man who presented himself, falsely, to the mother of a missing Texas child as her long-lost son.
Both films interrogate the notion of crime, guilt and a certain, disturbingly American spirit of absurdity.
The answers to the other two questions are more elusive. “American Animals” differs from “The Imposter” in that it is lightly fictionalized.
The words “This not a true story” appear on-screen at the start, only to have the “not” disappear, indicating a relationship with the truth that acknowledges both its aspirational qualities and its unknowability.
Like last year’s marvelous “I, Tonya,” “American Animals” is based on interviews with the perpetrators: in this case, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, whose often contradictory accounts of their crime are peppered throughout the film, guiding us through the reenactments, even as they call them into question. At times, the four men briefly appear alongside the actors who portray them (respectively, Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner), lending the film an additional patina of surrealism. They are not just tellers of the tall tale, Layton suggests, but participants in and witnesses to it.
That embrace of factuality’s slippery nature lends the film a delirious headiness, turning what might otherwise have been just another true-crime story into something more philosophical and complex.
At its core, “American Animals” is most interested in this question: What is it about these four examples of the American millennial — all products of Lexington’s elite high schools — that led to their sense of entitlement and impunity?
As an Englishman, Layton’s status as an outsider is underscored by the film’s ironic title, which alludes both to Audubon’s book and the sense of a behavioral zoologist whose study is Man himself (or, at least, the New World variant of the species).
Keoghan, so wonderfully unsettling in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” is the central character here, delivering a finely nuanced portrait of apathy turned to amorality. His castmates are also good, with Ann Dowd (so creepy in “The Handmaid’s Tale”) delivering a particularly fine performance as the beleaguered librarian Betty Jean Gooch, who was tied up, shot with a stun gun and blindfolded during the robbery.
“American Animals,” while an entertaining version of a heist film at times, is no “Ocean’s 8.” Its signature moment occurs not during the re-enactment of the inept crime, or its planning and antic aftermath. Rather, it comes in the middle of one of Lipka’s interview scenes, when the ex-con, now in his 30s and out of jail, is stunned into tearful, inarticulate silence while reflecting on his own capacity for — and ultimately inability to explain away his rationale for — evil.