‘American Animals’ is a docudrama thriller

A true story about four college boys and a historic heist.

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“American Animals” opens Friday, July 13, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center at 7:30 pm. Forget about the “Ocean’s 8” heist fancy — this heist movie is based on a real-life 2004 robbery by four college students from Kentucky.

“American Animals” opens with the statement, “This is not based on a true story,” which then switches to “This is a true story.” These changing scripts alert the viewer to the film’s dual nature. Director Bart Layton moves the film back and forth from reconstruction of events to interviews with the real not-so-fab four.

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is an art student attending Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., where he grew up. During a visit to Transylvania’s rare book room, he sees John James Audubon’s famous “Birds of America” and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species.” Why not steal them, he speculates, since the Audubon book is worth $12 million? His friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a University of Kentucky student on an athletic scholarship, latches onto the idea, and the heist by these so-called nice, white, middle-class students is off and running. They start out by Googling “how to plan a heist.”

Two more students join the plot: Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), each adding a specialty. Eric, an accounting major, will provide organizational skills, and Chas is the moneyed entrepreneur. Along the way, viewers will hear from parents and the actual perpetrators, who have spent seven years in prison since the heist.

For Spencer, the robbery is less about greed than the desire for a life-altering experience, and for Warren, it’s a revolt against conformity. Spencer holds reservations, while Warren jumps in with both feet.

Heist films like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Rififi” provide the four with ideas, and they name themselves Mr. Black, Mr. Green, Mr. Yellow, and Mr. Pink, à la Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” They might have been better off watching “Compulsion,” the 1959 film based on the famous Leopold and Loeb case.

The four decide to disguise themselves as old men, and plan to neutralize the rare book room’s librarian/guardian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), with a taser. They figure final exam week will provide the ideal time for the robbery. Despite the crew’s wall full of diagrams and plot machinations, the robbery runs into multiple mishaps, none of which inspire them to give up on their audacious scheme.

“American Animals” provides viewers a fascinating mix of docudrama, thriller, and slapstick, with a dash of serious ideas. “Ocean’s Eight” may make it seem like heists can succeed, but “American Animals” demonstrates how unlikely the scenario really is.

Information and tickets for “American Animals” and other Film Center, Strand, or Capawock Theater films are available at mvfilmsociety.com.