When Bart Layton was deciding which of John James Audubon’s paintings to showcase in his new film American Animals, about the half-baked, real-life 2004 heist by four college sophomores in Kentucky trying to steal an original four-volume folio of Birds of America, he knew some people in his audience might not be well-versed in the history of ornithological illustration. So, the British director went with the one he considered “iconic”: the American Flamingo. “People who are not familiar with Audubon will see that and say, ‘Oh, right, it's that guy,’ ” Layton explains.
Throughout the first half of the film, the poised flamingo, one of the 435 bird species that make up Birds of America, plays a starring role. It’s the image we see when quiet art student Spencer Reinhard (played by Barry Keoghan) first sets eyes on the glass-encased tome during a freshman-orientation tour of Transylvania University’s rare books room, while the librarian (Ann Dowd) explains that the volumes are worth millions. As he, his childhood friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), and two other friends sketch out how they’ll gain access to the collections room and snatch the books in broad daylight, the flamingo painting resurfaces in their hyper-idealized fantasy. And when a reluctant Reinhard is on the verge of backing out, the night before the crime is set to go down, it’s an eerie vision of a ghost-like flamingo standing in a suburban street that gets him back in the game.
But in the scene in which the would-be robbers finally arrive at the library, the book is open not to the flamingo, but to Audubon’s illustration of a pair of Peregrine Falcons tearing a duck apart. It’s a violent image to anchor how the zany caper—the foursome even gave each other color-coded names, Reservoir Dogs-style—was in reality a brutal act: The scheme hinged on Lipka tasering and tying up the librarian in charge of the collection. “That’s [the moment when] decent, supposedly well-educated young men become animals,” Layton says.
The contents of Birds of America, which Audubon painted after setting off from his Kentucky home in the 1820s, were always incidental to the crime; to Reinhard and Lipka, the book was just something valuable that could be taken. But Layton says that as he researched Audubon’s life and viewed the folios in preparation for the film, he began to see a deeper connection. “It wasn't until I got into it that I realized the symbolism of the artwork—and of Audubon himself,” Layton says. The question that drives the narrative is the same one that the public and the young men’s families were asking back when the crime was committed: What would possess four set-up-for-success college kids to attempt a scheme so clearly disastrous? More than a decade later, the film offers an answer, in part through interstitial documentary-style interviews with the actual perpetrators. Essentially, it concludes, it was 21st-century middle-class ennui—a drive to do something remarkable, something big.
“We're living in a culture where being average is no longer acceptable. There’s an increasing pressure to leave a mark on the world,” Layton says. Reinhard, in particular, “kind of wanted to be Audubon.” “He wanted to find his artistic purpose,” the director says. “But instead of going off into the wild and finding out what he's made of, he chose this very ill-advised misadventure.” In the end, the culprits dropped the 50-pound Birds of America volumes in the stairwell as they fled, and only got away from the library with a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and some Audubon pencil sketches. They were caught a couple months later.
After spending seven years behind bars, Reinhard himself sees a certain affinity with Audubon, albeit in a different way. As the film’s coda notes, he’s now a working artist and often paints birds. Reinhard, who lives in Colombia with his wife and young daughter, tells Audubon that he first began to take an interest in birds in prison, when he started to notice the different sparrows in the yard. After he was released, it became a full-blown hobby. He began incorporating herons and other species into his artwork, some of which is inspired by Audubon, whose story Reinhard has taken a deep interest in since the heist.
When Audubon set out into the wilderness, he was at a low point in life: His business had failed and he had been thrown in jail for his debts. “This mission to go out and paint all the birds in North America was his last chance to kind of salvage his life,” Reinhard says—a feeling he now understands, as he tries to pay tribute in a healthy way. “Maybe my relationship to Audubon,” he adds, “is trying to make up for whatever pain I caused with that crime."
American Animals is now playing in limited theaters.