American Animals is a documentary. It’s built around interviews with four men who robbed a university library in Kentucky in 2004, interspersed with the most elaborate, well-made recreations you’ve ever seen.

American Animals isn’t a documentary. Its structure is basically the same as I, Tonya: a narrative interspersed with after-the-fact interviews, but in the case of American Animals, the interviews are with the real people, not the actors portraying them.

Whether American Animals is a documentary is irrelevant. It’s a film that collapses any difference. It’s a film about the relationship between reality and the representation of reality: reflecting and refracting through each other, as we watch a heist movie about a group of teenagers who rent out Reservoir Dogs and Point Break and Rififi to learn how to do a heist, as what they (and we) remember, or choose to remember, makes reality contentious, as the lines between the film’s documentary and fiction elements blur and break down.

“So, this is how you remember it?” Warren (Evan Peters) asks his real-life counterpart, Warren Lipka, who has suddenly appeared beside him in his car.

“Not exactly,” Lipka – who thinks this conversation that’s about to happen took place at a party, not in a car – says, “But if this is how Spencer remembers it, then let’s go with it.”

*

“You ever feel like you’re just waiting for something to happen, but you don’t know what it is?” Spencer (Barry Keoghan, who was so extraordinary in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) asks near the start of American Animals. He’s getting high in a carpark in Warren’s car, his head lolling back against the headrest. “That thing that could, uh, make your life special?”

American Animals is laser-focused on the particular malaise of young people in their first year at college: on the cusp of something like adulthood and weighed down with disappointment in something they’re not sure they wanted in the first place. As children, they were told they were special, and now they realise that’s not true. As children, they were told they could be whatever they wanted to be even as they were told what to want, what to aim for, and now they’re locked into an entire life because of “choices” that they didn’t really make. But they still can’t help believing deep down what they’d been told – and so they wait for something, though they don’t know what, that thing that could – will – make their life special.

Spencer is an art student at Transylvania University, and he thinks his art isn’t really about anything because nothing’s ever happened to him. The great painters he admires had tragic lives, the real Spencer Reinhard tells us, because art has to be about something more than “I’m really good at drawing.” On a tour of the university library, he sees John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, as well as a rare and valuable edition of The Origin of Species with a misspelling. There are no security guards; just glass enclosures and a single librarian, B.J. (Ann Dowd). When he tells Warren about it, it’s part-joke, part-dare.

Warren is on an athletic scholarship to the University of Kentucky, but he never goes to practice. This is the life that was set out for him the guts of two decades ago by a father who had the same life set out for him by his father, and now Warren’s here and he’s listless and miserable. “So, did you meet any new cool people over there?” Spencer asks him. “No,” Warren answers, “Bunch of jocks.” (Spencer answers no to the same question: one of the first scenes in the film is of him being hazed at a frat party, jeered at and sexually humiliated.) He breaks into the back of the restaurant where he used to work to steal slabs of meat, and it’s incredibly on the nose yet somehow perfect that as he drives away, he mimes along to Johnny Thunder’s ‘I’m Alive’.

The real Spencer Reinhard says the idea of stealing the books started as a joke, but the real Warren Lipka says he was completely serious from the beginning. Spencer draws out a map of the library floor; Warren uses a contact to get an email address for a fence (“somebody who buys stolen shit,” he explains to Spencer). They arrange a meeting with the guy in New York, and the ensuing montage is an absolute delight: ‘New York Groove’ plays on the soundtrack, and Spencer and Warren dance and drink and can hardly keep them themselves from grinning. It feels like everything being young is supposed to feel like: exciting and carefree and joyful. Reinhard says in the interview that he didn’t want to go back to Kentucky and to their regular lives, and have the adventure end.

Warren meets the guy, who it turns out is not the fence but a guy who will put them in contact with the fence. The actual fence lives in Amsterdam, and only does business in person. They go home, and it seems like it’s over. Then, when Spencer is over at their house for dinner, Warren’s parents get in a fight – and then announce a divorce. Spencer tries to exit politely, but Warren goes with him. He gets drunk, and it isn’t fun the way drinking in New York was – it’s just sort of pathetic, as Warren stumbles around and picks fights with strangers and a spare, tense piece of score fills the soundtrack. It culminates in him vomiting near a sign that says “Support the Troops: All You Can Eat Turkey Tuesday”. It’s here he says that he wants to go to Amsterdam. Spencer says he can’t go, then agrees to pay half the ticket. Their adventure is back on, and they can live – at least a little while longer – in the fantasy of it. In the fantasy of a special life.

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In Make Happy, one of the best stand-up specials ever made, Bo Burnham talks about his generation being raised in a cult of self-expression: “I was just taught, you know, express myself and have things to say and everyone will care about them. And I think everyone was taught that, and most of us found out no one gives a shit what we think.” American Animals is about the pain of that realisation, and young men who try to run from it. If you’re not special, if you can’t just wait around for something to make your life special, then you have to do something to become special. Even if that something is selfish and immoral.

“It’s prison. It’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together,” Burnham says, “What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member?” And when Warren tries to convince Spencer to stick to the plan at moments of doubt, he always asks him the same question, like he’s watching his own life on a screen: “Don’t you want to see what happens next?”

(Spencer is waiting for the inevitable block in their path, the moment where the heist becomes impossible and everything is set back to its natural order, but it never comes.)

This is why some critics found American Animals unpalatable. It is about a group of white middle-class young men who did something terrible for no real reason other than they were bored and wanted to do something. They are not the kind of characters most people want to sympathise with, and it is certainly to the film’s credit that it doesn’t try to paint them as heroic or noble. But it is equally to the film’s credit that the performances of Peters and Keoghan are imbued with such humanity that you can feel the aching and humiliation that lives under the skin of their listlessness, that you can understand a crime that has no motivation rational enough to put into words without sounding absurd.

But some things only sound absurd as long as we’re unused to them being stated baldly. The malaise that afflicts Spencer and Warren is so widespread yet so rarely articulated, invisible in its ubiquity. They feel they have no control over their own lives, no real or meaningful choices, precisely because that is the nature of capitalism. I’ve written before about how so often work is treated as the sum total of all human life – with friendship, family, art, religion, hobbies, and entertainment relegated to “free time” – and so to not have control over your work feels like having no control at all. Yet for the average person – for the vast, vast majority of people – huge swathes of both their working life and whatever’s left over are outside of their control, and under the control of employers, landlords, corporate executives and politicians. “The average person under capitalism does not really control much of his or her own economic activity, much less his or her own destiny,” Elizabeth Bruenig writes. If you are lucky enough to find a job, you spend the bulk of your waking hours working towards ends that are not your own, that you may not even know or understand.

The film is set in 2004, and peppered with foreshadowing of the oncoming collapse of the world economy, an event that transformed countless lives (and killed staggering numbers), whose strings were pulled from the corridors of power as the average person helplessly bore the brunt of it. Eric (Jared Abrahamson), an accountancy student who Warren recruits to take care of the heist’s logistics, is taught in class that auditors have an obligation to seek out fraud, not just report it if they find it. “Except, in reality, it doesn’t always work like that, does it?” he counters, “Arthur Andersen. Remember them? Auditors to Enron?” Later, a lecturer says that CDOs – collateralized debt obligations, the use of which incentivised banks to make subprime loans and essentially led to the destruction of the world economy – are “rock and roll”. These are the questions on Eric’s final exam:

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The coach who tells Warren he’s going to be kicked off the team is sitting in front of a framed photo of George W. Bush. He tells him what a disappointment this will be to Warren’s father.

“Yeah. That will be a disappointment,” Warren says, slow and even, “Thing is, I worked to get on that team since I was about five. And I have no idea why. To be honest, sir, I think this whole place is a disappointment. I think you’re a disappointment. And I think this whole goddamn town is a disappointment.”

Warren talks about his life, about all their lives, like they’re stuck on a conveyor belt. He worked his whole life to get on the college team, and once he got there, he could see the hollowness of everything he’s been told to want. “Which fucking future are you worried about? The one that’s fucking indistinguishable from everyone else’s?” he yells at Spencer, “Where you fucking beaver away to get the shit you’re told you need to have by some fucking asshole who’s going to tell you what a great big success you are once you get it all?”

Warren wants off the conveyor belt, and doesn’t seem to much care how. The choices he has seem shallow and false, not any true autonomy. “Our whole life, we’re just unwrapping shit,” Warren says, “Packaging, packaging, packaging. The illusion of choice.”

John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing that consumption has become a substitute for a true, complete democracy: “The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice.” Warren is alight with the sense of this as an injustice. He lectures other characters about the falsity of consumptive choice, and strives to reject it. He wants to make a meaningful choice about his life, and so he does. But it turns out to be an unconscionable one.

American Animals is one of the most resolutely anti-violence films I’ve ever seen. Violence, in the film, is intrinsically, unbearably evil. The only thing between our protagonists and millions of dollars in rare books is a librarian. They tell themselves over and over that no-one will get hurt, like a mantra. But the way each of them insist on not being the one to deal with the librarian shows they don’t really believe it. Eventually Warren agrees to do it: he’ll shock her with a taser, then zip-tie her arms and legs.

There are essentially three versions of the heist. The first is Warren’s fantasy: an incredibly slick, well-dressed operation in the style of Ocean’s Eleven, it’s shot in a single take, the camera moving with fluid ease as ‘A Little Less Conversation’ plays on the soundtrack. The librarian faints instantly from the taser, and they lower her gracefully into a chair. The second is an aborted attempt. They all wear ridiculous old man disguises: when Spencer buys the wigs and fake moustaches, the cashier asks if they’re having a costume party. “Making a movie,” he corrects him. When they get to the library, Spencer panics, feeling like everyone is looking at him. They pull the plug when there are several librarians having a meeting instead of the one they’d planned on.

“Maybe we dodged a bullet,” Spencer says on the car ride home.

“We didn’t dodge anything, because we didn’t fucking do anything!” Warren shouts, “We just fucked it up!”

On the way back, Warren goes into a shop to buy snacks. He looks at all the different types on offer – packaging, packaging, packaging – and makes the call to book an appointment at the library the next day.

Third is the real robbery. It’s the day after the aborted attempt. They’re wearing suits, not weird disguises. Warren is going to take care of the librarian, and then call Eric up to bag up the books.

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It’s hard to convey the visceral horror of the robbery scene in words. By film standards, the literal events we see happen aren’t extreme or shocking. On the face of it, here’s what happens: when Warren calls up Eric, the librarian isn’t tased or tied up, she’s happily going about her job. Warren grabs her and uses the taser, and she cries and screams. He forces her to the ground, trying to cover her mouth and telling her to shut the fuck up, as she whimpers and cries and struggles. He ties up her hands, tapes over her mouth and tells Eric to tie up her legs. When they can’t find the keys to the glass cases in her desk, they find it on her necklace. They take two volumes of Birds of America, the rare copy of The Origin of Species, and some other books. They get the lift to the basement, but it’s completely dark and they can’t find the exit. They end up making a run for a it through the front entrance, and drop the Birds of America books in the process. When they get into the car, Warren vomits onto the dashboard.

There are broadly two types of film violence: serious violence, which feels real and urgent and unsettling, and fun violence, which can range from slapstick to choregraphed dance but is never supposed to be realistic. American Animals sets you up for fun violence: it’s a heist movie, and it wears its genre influences on its sleeve. But it doesn’t just take a left turn towards serious violence – it takes a much sharper turn than that, to something that goes beyond just realism.

The violence of the robbery is deeply disturbing, even haunting. There’s a thousand small details that create this effect: that the librarian doesn’t pass out even though Warren tases her over and over, just keeps crying and struggling, and so there can be no reprieve; that we see that she has wet herself; the score, which is just the right kind of tense. There’s the stellar performances of Abrahamson, Dowd, and especially Peters. But what makes it land the hardest is the memory of Warren’s fantasy version. He’s dressed like he was in the fantasy – black suit, hair slicked back – where everything was not just quick and easy but effortlessly cool and exciting and fun. “Don’t you want to see what happens next?” he’d kept asking, but in the robbery scene, all the artifices, all the removes from reality, break down.

“We just tried to get past it but. There’s no real getting past it,” the real Warren Lipka tells the camera.

*

After they serve their prison sentences, all the guys end up as artists of one kind or another: the real Spencer Reinhard paints birds; the real Warren Lipka wants to be a filmmaker; the real Eric Borsuk is a writer (he’s working on a memoir titled American Animals); the real Chas Allen is writing a book about prison workouts. The real BJ Gooch, still working as a librarian at the university, talks about their wanting a transformative experience. Yet at the end of film – after the visceral horror of the robbery, the violence of which is impossible to get past – they do not appear transformed. They still can’t shake off the cult of self-expression: the need to craft their lives into a story, this need to be special and have interesting things to say that everyone will want to listen to.

“If you can live your life without an audience,” Bo Burnham says at the end of speech about performance near the end of Make Happy, “You should do it.”

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