Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

American Animals

(USA, UK, 2018)

In 2004 a group of four students at Transylvania University (yeah, there is such a place, in Kentucky) decide life is too boring. They need some excitement. They decide to rob the school library of its most precious possessions, including a first printing of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and a copy of the Double Elephant Folio of Audubon’s Birds of America, worth at least $10,000,000. They hatch a “cunning plan,” as Edmund Blackadder’s dimwitted dogsbody Baldric would have said.

The great Preston Sturges made a movie in 1948 called Unfaithfully Yours (later remade in a much inferior version with Dudley Moore). In it, Rex Harrison is a symphony conductor who decides to kill his wife. In a famous shot, the camera dollies in from a distance until we see only his one eye, and his ingenious plan unfolds in his mind. It is complex, it is brilliant, he operates with total aplomb, and it all comes off perfectly. Of course when he tries to do it everything that could possibly go wrong, does go wrong. It’s the same here. We see how it would have happened if any of these super-smart morons had a lick of sense, or nerve. The amazing thing is that they somehow managed not to kill anyone.

Which is not to say they didn’t cause a lot of damage to a lot of lives. (I’m happy to report that the books were okay. The librarian they tied up was most definitely not okay.) What really sets this apart, though, is that the actual robbers and the librarian are part of the movie. The re-enacting will pause now and then and we hear from these guys. It’s sort of like those thousands and thousands of “true crime” series that infest our TVs these days. But it is miles and miles above that. The boys served seven years in federal prison, and seem genuinely contrite now. This is a most unusual movie, and I recommend it.