It’s the morning of December 17th 2004 and Betty Jean Gooch, the librarian of the Special Collections Library at the Transylvanian University in Kentucky is preparing for an appointment at 11 with Walter Beckman.
She’d never met this man before, but they’d chatted over the phone and by e-mail as Beckman was interested in viewing Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and four double-size folios of John James Audubon’s Birds of America.
Upon his arrival, she noted his heavy coat and younger-than-expected appearance as he signed into the visitor’s log. Beckman seemed to be a little agitated, but he asked if he could invite a friend to come view the books with him. Gooch agreed.
Soon, a man dressed like Beckman – in a winter coat, cap and gloves – joined them and introduced himself as John, and together they followed Gooch into the Rare Book Room. It wasn’t long until Gooch felt a tingle in her right arm and collapsed to the floor.
That is how the true story of American Animals began, written and directed by Bart Layton and released in theatres towards the beginning of September, as four young men made the mistake of their lives by attempting one of the most audacious heists in US history.
Within hours the entire campus was swarmed with police as they tried to track down the priceless books, but there were no fingerprints and barely any witnesses. The librarian Gooch, told them what she could, but after being tased to the ground she’d had her hands and feet bound by zip-ties and a woollen cap pulled over her eyes, although one detail had remained her with her:
“Quit struggling B.J., or do you want to feel more pain”, B.J. was a name her friends and colleagues used for her, how did it he know it?
When the four young men were arrested, it was met with disbelief and confusion. They were upstanding students, popular athletes and two were even awarded with some form of college scholarship. They were average upper-middle class kids who had been afforded every opportunity in life, so what could have pushed them to do it?
Now, 15 years later and a combined nearly 30 years spent in federal prison, the boys are much older and (hopefully) wiser, ready to tell their story with Layton in an almost docu-drama style that showcases interviews with the real people who carried off the heist alongside portrayals of the events with actors, seeing Evan Peters play Warren Lipka, Barry Keoghan as Spencer Reinhard, Blake Jenner as Chas Allen and Jared Abrahamson as Eric Borsuk.
Heist films certainly don’t shy away from using real life events to either base their premise on entirely or inspire a different take, but Layton’s use of the real people shows a marked change in how those stories are presented.
There’s a certain voyeuristic intrigue that comes with watching a person share their darkest moment, something that has seen a dramatic growth in popularity for crime documentary series on streaming platforms like Netflix. We pondered over whether Michael Peterson did it in The Staircase and felt our hearts go out to Sister Cathy and the tireless efforts of her old pupils in The Keepers – documentaries like these bring us so much closer to the action, transforming the audience into fully qualified detectives trying to figure out the mystery themselves.
By juxtaposing the real people against the more traditional dramatised telling of events, Layton brought us into the heist. We got to understand their intentions and their reasoning, and it was almost as if we were there alongside the friends as a fifth to the group, helping them pull off this incredible crime ourselves.
This step away from the traditional heist film helped open the genre up to those who wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to partake, “I’m not always a huge fan of heist films by default, because I feel like they follow a very specific template which taps into predictable violence, comedy, romance and such,” says Ella Kemp, film critic for Culture Whisper. “What I loved about American Animals is that the tropes are repeatedly broken down and questions, and the veracity of events contributes to the suspense, as well as the stakes within the robbery itself.”
Not all heist films of late have attempted to break the formula however, as Michael Caine takes the reigns of the Hatton Garden safe deposit box heist in King of Thieves in what was a classic example of a what heist film usually is for a not-so-classic heist.
In April 2015, when families were busy celebrating the long Easter Bank Holiday weekend, a gang of elderly men broke into the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company and stole nearly £200 million worth of items.
It was a ‘one last job’ to end all last jobs, with all members of this little crime gang in their 60’s to 70’s and sporting a checkered past with plenty of run-ins with the law. The uniqueness of this crime led the public to become captivated by the investigation that ensued, spawning a multitude of investigative documentaries, dramatised TV shows and films.
But why is it that King of Thieves, the latest addition to “the largest burglary in English legal history”, bombed in theatres and got itself a rather generous 36% score on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas American Animals, an ambitious heist over a relatively tame object – some dusty old books – soared in popularity and scored an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Why is it that the heist with all the makings of an excellent narrative: twists, intrigue and a level of ludicrousness that can be revelled in, didn’t do so well? What is it that makes a heist film enjoyable?
Victor Fraga, film critic for Dirty Movies, favours The Baader Meinhof Complex above all other heist films, explaining that “a good heist movie must combine the right amounts of adrenaline and oxytocin; it should move both your heart and your brain. It must also be agile but nuanced, so crime and wrongdoing isn’t as simple as it seems.”
Could it then be perhaps, that the sheer media frenzy around the Hatton Garden heist set up King of Thieves to fail? We already knew the case and were familiar with what happened, and therefore the film became less driven by the plot and being on the edge of your seat wondering ‘do they pull it off?’, and more about the relationships and interactions between the characters (which as a film exclusively about old, white men is not something we haven’t seen before).
But we were also aware of the story behind American Animals – the heist had generated about as much interest worldwide as it could in a time before social media and so it could have befallen the same trap as King of Thieves, but by subverting the traditional way of telling such a story, Layton managed to keep us on the hook. He used that morbid curiosity we all have against us and involved the audience into the story where King of Thieves kept us firmly separated.
Twiggy Absinthe would agree that the crux of a good heist film lies within that connection to the characters, “a good film will keep you invested in the characters and their struggles and leave you guessing as to what’s going to happen. A good heist film has to do this exceptionally well.”
“The best heist films were a heist film second, or were able to invent clever problems that seem hopeless; only for an incredible solution to then be presented to us later, and unfortunately a lot films in this genre can struggle with this. Having said that, my personal favourites are probably Reservoir Dogs and A Fish Called Wanda; both are heist films second, being a gang film and a comedy respectively.”
Charing Kam of Frame Rated would argue that the essence of a good heist lies within what we already know, “it banks on predictability; you know that they’re going to get away with it in the end. To excel and entertain then, requires ingenuity in all the small moments. How can you surprise audiences with innovative plot twists, little comedic moments, and make the predictable enjoyable with a snappy soundtrack and enough swagger for days? Well, a rotating hallway helps! This is why my favourite has to be Inception.”
For me personally, it’s the not-knowing something that keeps me fascinated when it comes to a mystery or heist film such as these. I like to analyse and try figure out the crux of the plan before the film has a chance to tell me, which is why I loved the cheesy and mischievous magician led heists in Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2, particularly their famous hidden card scene.
The ridiculous plans carried off with a unique flourish are only further accented by their interesting characters and twist endings. They pull off incredible and seemingly impossible stunts, but explain them in due time so as to satisfy our curiosity and not leave the audience frustrated, ultimately servicing both our heart and our brain as Fraga describes.
Widows is another heist film that flips the traditional idea of telling a heist story, where four women with nothing in common are left to pick up the pieces of a botched job that killed their husbands. In what is an extremely rare occurrence for the genre, the narrative of the heist is put in the hands of women.
Directed by Steve McQueen and with the screenplay from Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, Widows was adapted from an ITV show that debuted back in 1983, projected into a contemporary setting and led by one the most talented actresses of our time, Viola Davis.
The film uses their grief and anger at losing their husbands to fuel their desire to carry off the heist, critiquing ridiculous notions of what womanhood and a woman’s place is with a realistic and much-needed insight into modern gender politics, earning it a well deserved 90% on Rotten Tomatoes – beating out the male counterparts mentioned here.
"I also really loved Widows," says Kemp. "It lights some kind of fuse under the usual gimmicks with unforgiving violence and incredible entertainment. And of course, to see such complex and powerful women in charge is a fantastic change."
Of course, Widows – due out in theatres on November 6th – isn’t the first heist film of the year to see women taking on the helm of what has been an exclusive boys club to date. Ocean’s Eight pushed boundaries by utilising one of the most successful heist series of films, swapping out the usual suspects for Danny Ocean’s sister, Debbie and her unstoppable crew as they attempt to rob the New York MET Gala.
The film was in and of itself an homage to previous Ocean’s films, opening the same way Ocean’s Eleven did with an Ocean being asked what they will do when they leave prison and released on the anniversary of Ocean’s Thirteen, with plenty of other hints and easter eggs linking in the other films in and establishing itself as part of the same universe.
However, despite a talent-pool dripping with some of today’s top actors like Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Helen Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling and Sarah Paulson, the film was poorly received by critics. It didn’t seem to satisfy Ocean’s fans for no real reason other than it wasn’t a perfect recreation of the series with the same old characters but with inverted genders.
It, like Widows, shows complex and strong women, entering into a partnership with a common goal in mind. Each of these women were different from one another, with their own pursuits and intent, ready to combine their separate talents for a huge undertaking, one that was largely successful.
With films like American Animals, Widows and Ocean’s Eight, the dynamic of the good ol’ classic heist is changing and certainly for the better. Whether it’s how we tell the story or the characters we choose to tell it from, a new avenue of more interesting, thoughtful and immersive film is opening up and lifting the entirety of the genre from its tired concepts to a new level of fictional fun.