American Animals, directed by Bart Layton, is a Sundance critical darling now surfing the wild waves of the summer season. This heist movie mixes boldness and buffoonery as it follows four college students who stole priceless books from Transylvania University. As wild as the plot is, it’s actually based on a true story from 2005.
That’s right, one year after Chris Evans plotted with Scarlett Johansson to steal SAT answers in The Perfect Score, four friends from Kentucky were plotting what turned out to be the worst heist in modern history. Now the story gets new life thanks to American Animals.
A stellar ensemble cast of young actors, fronted by American Horror Story favorite Evan Peters, plays the group of four privileged students desperate to break out of their monotonous routine. In addition to that fictionalized crew, which recreates the original heist in surprising detail, interviews from the real-life schemers are also sprinkled throughout.
The target of the heist: a too-weird-to-be-fiction object, a rare copy of Birds of America by John James Audubon, valued at over $12 million. The location? Their university library. Their obstacle: a plexiglass enclosure watched by an eagle-eyed librarian with the quintessential librarian name: Betty Jean Gooch. What could go wrong? Everything.
Reminder: this is all real.
Two guys masterminded the job. Spencer Reinhard, played in the film by Barry Koeghan (who was outstanding in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Warren Lipka (played by Evan Peters) were friends from nearby colleges who first began to hatch their plot by watching famous heist movies. When the scheme grew too large for the two to handle on their own, they recruited Charles “Chas” Allen II (played by Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (played by Jared Abrahamson) to their foolish cause.
Their plan boiled down to a reliance on cheap disguises meant to put Gooch at ease when giving up access to the storage room. In that, the guys were vaguely thoughtful; they wanted the most non-violent plan possible. But they would need time, as the book weighs nearly 250 pounds. Their nonviolent pledge was ironic, however, as the main inspiration for their plan came from the very violent film Reservoir Dogs.
So the young men had their plan. They made their costumes and ran through contingency plans. Things seemed good to go. We all know about the best laid plans of mice and men, however.
The first attempt to steal the book was a total failure. Shockingly, the costumes meant to disguise college students as old men fooled absolutely no one. The crew’s total lack of ease in their assumed identities didn’t help. Their second attempt began with a failed ploy to use a taser on Gooch, followed by a painfully long process unlocking the rare book case. Then they got lost in the basement of the library, rare books in hand.
Once back to the surface they were scared away by another librarian, dropped the books, and finally turned tail to run. Despite being unable to escape with the $12 million book, the four Kentucky boys were able to make off with nearly a million dollars worth of rare manuscripts.
Miraculously, the boys were able to evade capture for weeks before the FBI caught up to them soon after finals. In the meantime, an attempt to sell the books in New York City met with no success. Back home they were even able to follow the story of what came to be called the “Transy Book Heist.” For such a lame-brained plot, the FBI mounted a surprisingly detailed investigation with undercover efforts, stakeouts, and hours of surveillance footage. In late 2005 the four boys pleaded guilty to all six federal charges against them. They served their time and report being better people for having done so.
“We did the robbery as a way to escape,” Eric says. “I think we all knew that we wanted something different, and we had to break away from where we were living. If we got away with it, we’d be in Europe living this crazy life thinking we were Ocean’s 11 types. If not, we were going to get caught and it was going to be a crazy story.”
Still can’t believe this story is true? Check out American Animals in theaters now.