Film review: American Animals (2018)

In 2003, four undergraduates at two universities in Lexington, Kentucky cooked up an utterly hare-brained scheme, providing further evidence that young men (and I say this from personal experience) are basically stupid and should not be trusted to operate even a toaster. What was their plan? To dress up as old men and steal rare books, including those by naturalist John J. Audubon and Charles Darwin, from the collection held in Transylvania University.

Why do this? It is not clear. They were all from middle-class backgrounds and thus not in desperate need of money. While money was part of the allure (the books were worth tens of millions of dollars) most of the impetus seemed to be the desire to take part in a glorious adventure, pulling off a heist that would change their lives dramatically and forever and which they could look back on with pride in their later years.

This film is the story how they conceived of and carried out the plan. What distinguishes it from your standard heist film is the incompetence and naivete of the would-be thieves. Anyone with an ounce of sense could have told them that the scheme was doomed to fail and that even if, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, they succeeded, selling valuable rare books would not be easy, especially since the Audubon books were huge (about 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide) and heavy, containing reproductions of paintings, that were difficult for even two people to carry. The film is an enjoyable one, but also serves as a cautionary tale of how easy it is for young men, even if each one is fairly sensible when acting alone, to get carried away by group enthusiasm and the fear of being seen by their peers as wimping out to attempt the craziest things.

The film juxtaposes recreations of the events in the story with camera-facing interviews of the real people involved who recount their differing memories of what happened, giving a Rashomon-like feel and showing how unreliable our memories can be of even major events in our lives, where we find it hard to distinguish between those events that we think we experienced from the versions of those same events told to us by others.

Incidentally, if you are curious about the title, it is taken from page 138 of the first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species where he writes, “On my view we must suppose that American animals, having ordinary powers of vision, slowly migrated by successive generations from the outer world into the deeper and deeper recesses of the Kentucky caves, as did European animals into the caves of Europe.”

Here’s the trailer.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I though it was total fiction. And I assumed that Transylvania University would be in Romania.

    Well, if Transylvania University is in Kentucky, at least that handles the language problem.

    As we see daily, fact is stranger than fiction.

  2. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 Tabby Lavalamp
    Apparently a bit of time behind bars tends to make a lot of middle class and wealthy people advocates for prison reform.

    Even Conrad Black is an advocate for prison reform.

  3. John Morales says


    As we see daily, fact is stranger than fiction.

    What a stupid aphorism.

    No. Fact is limited to what is possible, unlike fiction.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @4 John Morales
    Touchy today aren’t we?

    You seem to be unable to convert a simple aphorism into a practical example of what it means in real life.

    Think of it more of “I could never sell this story, it’s too farfetched” until suddenly fact exceeds the fiction.

  5. John Morales says

    jrkrideau, doubling down? I guess we must be touchy today, so very strange!

    Heh. Stranger than fiction!

    Like the story of Christianity. Original sin? A god killing himself (who is his own son) to forgive said original sin, which therefore having been forgiven is no longer applicable, though it actually is? Less strange than entitled youngsters attempting to steal weighty tomes and being caught.


  6. John Morales says


    Think of it more of “I could never sell this story, it’s too farfetched” until suddenly fact exceeds the fiction.

    Such a weak rationalisation! Whoever thought that was wrongity-wrong. Which ain’t strange.


    (I do wish people would be better able to distinguish between existential and universal claims)

  7. suttkus says

    Grandma always liked the quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is expected to make sense and Truth answers to no one.” Or several variations thereof. I have no idea who might have said it originally. I’ve seen similar thoughts attributed to Mark Twain, but of course everything quotable is attributed to Mark Twain so that’s useless. : -- )

  8. John Morales says

    suttkus, grandma might have liked it, but is she believedit she was not very clever.

    (Also, it’s attributed to Lord Byron, FWTW)

  9. John Morales says

    I apologise for my boorish behaviour yesterday. Sorry, jrkrideau and suttkus.

    (And I apologise to Mano for taking advantage of his good nature and light hand, and I thank mnb0)

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