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American Animals is a 2018 heist film written and directed by Burt Layton (The Imposter). The story dramatizes an actual theft of several valuable books from the library of Transylvania University in Kentucky by four college students. Throughout the film, interviews with the real perpetrators and their families provide commentary on the action as it unfolds.

Tropes

  • American Title: American Animals.
  • Based on a True Story: The opening credits say "This is not based on a true story," but then does a 180 as words drop out until it reads "This is a true story."
  • Beneath Suspicion: The crew initially dress as tweedy old men as a disguise on the belief that old people are easily ignored.
  • Call-Back: As the crew is driving toward the heist, the real Spencer is seen standing on the lawn of a house, regretfully watching them pass by. In the end, the real Spencer stands on his lawn and imagines the car passing by. Each version includes the same shot of him from the car's POV.
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  • The Caper: Stealing The Birds of America and On the Origin of the Species as well as other valuable books from Transy's library.
  • Caper Crew: Four college students.
  • Cerebus Call Back: After the debacle of a heist, Spencer flashes back to earlier scenes of Warren and him laughing and having fun while planning the heist.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: The title comes from a quote from On the Origin of the Species, an abbreviated version of which appears as a title card: "American animals slowly migrated by successive generations from the outer world into the deeper and deeper recesses of the Kentucky caves." All words fade but "Kentucky" to present the setting of the film.
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: Early scenes emphasize how much fun Spencer and Warren are having being criminals and planning their heist. One scene has them rob a meat locker and drive away while exultantly singing along to Johnny Thunder's "I'm Alive."
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  • Deconstructed Trope: The Caper. This movie shows why Hollywood style heists do not work when performed by amateurs.
  • Go-to Alias: At several points in the film, Warren uses the alias "Walter Beckman."
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The film glosses over some of the less savory aspects of the perpetrators' lives and crime. BJ Gooch recalled Warren or Eric threatening to hurt her, where in the film Warren apologizes and assures her that they're only after the books. The film also does not mention how Warren has criminal connections: He and Eric participated in an identity theft ring, which is what caused the falling out between him and Eric and is why Eric agreed to another criminal enterprise so easily.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: The motive for Warren and Spencer is simply that they want to do something exciting with their lives.
  • Life Imitates Art: invoked Warren and Spencer bone up on heist films to plan their theft. They use the color-themed naming convention from Reservoir Dogs and even have the same argument about the usage of the codename "Mr. Pink" found in the film. Chas points out that the purpose of the aliases in Reservoir Dogs is to prevent the perpetrators from knowing each other's real names so that they couldn't inform on each other, which isn't applicable to this crime. Warren counters that they're just codenames for the robbery itself to avoid saying each other's names.
  • Momma's Boy: Warren is implied to be one. He's the only one to ask if everything is alright when he hears his mother drop some pans in the kitchen. The real Warren also says that he selected his alias "Mr. Yellow" because he's his mother's sunshine.
  • Motif: Birds, referencing The Birds of America
  • Painting the Medium:
    • When Spencer and Warren's recollections of events diverge, both versions are presented, but the lines between them blur, so that their characters will say things that are only applicable to the other version just before the film switches back.
    • When Warren watched the black and white film The Killing, a shot of him reacting to the film is in black and white, showing how absorbed he's become in the story.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: During the second attempt at the heist, the crew decides to forgo their disguises and simply dress in suits.
  • Period Piece: Released in 2018, the film takes place in 2004. Characters sport old-fashioned cellphones, use the library to access the internet, and rent DVDs from Blockbuster.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: The real perpetrators of the crime, who appear throughout the film in talking-head interviews, differ in their recollections of how they came up with the idea to rob the library. Both versions are dramatized by the actors portraying them. As the film cuts between the two versions, the actors occasionally make a comment that actually pertains to the other version of the events just before the scene cuts to it.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Whether Warren was lying about going to the Netherlands and meeting the fence. The real Warren simply says, "I guess you'll just have to take my word for it."
  • Shopping Cart Antics: Spencer and Warren are sitting in Warren's car in a parking lot, smoking weed and talking about how their lives are going nowhere. They are watching a bunch of people just hanging out in the empty parking lot, two of whom are pushing each other around in a shopping cart. Just before they leave, they see the now empty shopping cart rolling down the hill on fire.
  • Shout-Out: Spencer and Warren watch a number of heist films to plan their caper. The camera lingers on a shelf full of Blockbuster rentals. They're shown watching The Killing and use the codenames from Reservoir Dogs. The real Eric says it's his least favorite Quentin Tarantino film.
  • A Simple Plan: Millions of dollars worth of rare books with only an elderly librarian guarding them. What could go wrong?
  • Spanner in the Works: The first attempt at the robbery gets abandoned because there are multiple librarians in the rare book room, and the gang has no contingency for dealing with this.
  • Spiritual Successor: This film splits the difference between Layton's first film The Imposter (a documentary) and a purely dramatic film. They're both about a real crime, feature talking head interviews from the real people involved, include at least one Unreliable Narrator, and leave lingering questions about what really occurred.
  • Stupid Crooks: The actual heist could hardly go more poorly. Ultimately they're caught by some stupid flubs that Chas immediately recognizes.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • Spencer and Warren disagree on several points of the story, and the film presents both options. The real Spencer admits that he no longer knows whether he remembers his version of certain events or Warren's.
    • Warren claims he went to the Netherlands to meet with a fence, but in the end, members of the crew say that, for all they know, he made the whole thing up. The film presents an alternate version of that scene where Warren walks right back out of the airport and visits an American bar that looks identical to the Dutch bar we saw him meet the fence in. The real Warren states that you'll just have to take his word for it.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Warren throws up over the dashboard of the getaway car after the robbery.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Title cards at the end reveal that all four perpetrators are now free and living quiet, modest lives.

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