In one of many fantastic bits of detail in “American Animals,” director Bart Layton’s camera casually pans a shelf of DVDs that the true-crime yarn’s amateur thieves watch for education as much as inspiration. The binge stack includes heist classics galore, from “Rififi” to “Reservoir Dogs.”
The scene invites us to wonder, with intended wry amusement, what chance for success these big-dreaming greenhorns can possibly have. At the same time, though, it’s not absurdly incongruous for the movie to name-check genre touchstones. The work turned in by Layton (the 2012 documentary “The Imposter”) is so confidently executed, you’d guess that this absorbing, Sundance-lauded mix of caper flick, docudrama, and cautionary tale may well gain a passionate following of its own.
The film chronicles a 2004 robbery at Kentucky’s Transylvania University in which four local students plotted to grab some of the school’s most prized library holdings: pallet-size folios of naturalist John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” worth an estimated $12 million. (The group also snatched a rare first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” whose observations about a curiously evolved bird native to Kentucky furnished the movie’s metaphorical title.)
We spend the most time with Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan, “Dunkirk”), a talented art student whose vague, privileged yearning for unique life experience first leads him to idly contemplate the theft. As he and a charismatic rebel buddy, Warren Lipka (cast standout Evan Peters, “X-Men”), kick the idea around over weed and convenience store runs, a bona fide plan takes shape. There are trips to New York and Amsterdam for jittery, out-of-their-depth meetings with potential fences, and manpower additions in the form of bright, bored accounting major Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and entrepreneurially driven Chas Allen (Blake Jenner). And if the old-timer disguises they cook up are over the top, there’s at least some shrewdness to their reasoning that the elderly all too often pass for invisible.
The drama palpably, potently conveys the group’s misgivings, their jangling nerves, the foolhardy resignation pushing them on despite themselves. It feels like a bonus that the movie underscores it all through fascinating interviews with the real Reinhard, Lipka, Borsuk, and Allen, along with blindsided family members and a librarian assaulted in the robbery. (Ann Dowd of “The Handmaid’s Tale” tackles her scenes.)
We wish the film gave us even more of its stylish opening symbolism, of its keenly observed characterization. Strange that it’s perhaps the only way that greed actually figures into the psychic landscape of “American Animals.”
Written and directed by Bart Layton. Starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, Ann Dowd. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square. 96 minutes. R (language throughout, some drug use, brief crude/sexual material).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.