The heist film occupies an unusual place in the public’s mind. Usually a tale of rag-tag criminals who come together against a greater evil to rob them, it is couched in our sympathies for Robin Hood characters, even when they in fact only stand to benefit themselves. The general public has always been fascinated by such crimes: when the Great Train Robbery took place in England, many people interviewed on the street expressed sympathy for the crooks and wished them well.

A good heist film is just clever enough to allow the audience to think that they too could commit such a crime. It is a form of puzzle solving that most adults in our world never begin to engage in. Even overtly political heist films like Spike Lee’s Inside Man can be enjoyed purely as vehicles for human mental combat, outwitting complex systems and other people for a grand prize.

When I was just finishing high school, a few of my friends and I were enthralled by some of these heist films, Ocean’s Eleven perhaps looming the largest in our imaginations. The running joke amongst a few of us was that if we got to forty and had no options, we’d plan our own heist. American Animals is the true story of college-aged, middle-class white kids planning and executing their own heist.

The opening sequence and score are perfectly balanced to draw the audience in. It proclaims to us it is not based on a true story, it is a true story. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the parents of our criminals lamenting how it could have happened. Now, I was not aware of this heist and saw this film on a plane, so I could not stop and look up the details. This made the film all the more engaging to me, so it is with some regret I have to outline part of the real life heist.

Four young men attempted to steal a number of very valuable books from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. They were eventually apprehended following the robbery by the FBI and each spent seven plus years in a federal prison. But in this film, they are free and talking to you about what happened and what led them to that moment.

At times, cinema will invite the audience in as a participant, and what is attempted here is to have you ask what is true. At one point as the actors engage in the recollection, we cut between the two main protagonists being interviewed and each remembers the facts slightly differently. Was the idea brought up in a car ride or at a house party? The truth is difficult in the details, and much of what is asked of you as a viewer is how important these details are in the reconstruction of the event.

To me, this film is the story of the What If many young white men deal with. The act of violence—of robbery—is a brutal one, but the idea that such an act can elevate one’s life beyond the ordinary one we live is unique to a certain mindset. These are not petty criminals known to a life of crime (although one character certainly displays more predilections for teenage hell-raising); one of the robbers reflects that he was taking college courses specifically to get into the FBI. They instead honestly speak about the desire to break free from a system constraining them. Many white men in the feminized West realize they live in a prison and attempt to break out of it, perhaps as hypersexual pick-up artists, or as budding martial artists/weightlifters. I myself LARP as a small arms mercenary. Few of us, however, will ever take this to the lengths these young men did. Monetary motivation is a distinctive afterthought.

The film plays out the build up to the heist well, but is rather narrow in the focus on Spencer and Warren. As the gang grows, we see Erik and Chas added; however, it felt like the reasons for Erik’s (our would-be FBI agent) and Chas’ (the most Chad-like of them) involvement are a little under-explained. It is hinted that part of the reason was just male bonding, the formation of a gang engaged in something meaningful, even if criminal. Maybe that was it and maybe our own subjects are not quite aware of it. Chas is the most mysterious in his motivations, and indeed his real-life interview segments suggest the most regret compared to the others.

The act of violence at the heart of this heist is a difficult one, perhaps what the director intends to ground the darkness of the event in: the Animals. The books they desire are in a room occupied by a female librarian. The boys must deal with her, but all are unwilling. When the act does finally play out, it is uncomfortable: just as we forget the infanticide of the ancient world when admiring them, so here do these young men wish to avoid that their ultimate act of violence and hurt was committed against an elderly woman. It is not portrayed or discussed, but I was left wondering if, with all their planning and thinking, there was no way around this?

As they shambolically half-complete the heist, their world begins to unravel. Failure is their crime as much as anything else. The latter half of the film builds up speed, perhaps as a deliberate way to portray the chaos and uncertainty once the dust settles, once the high-minded goals of breaking free from the prison crumble as they realize they are still trapped. As they are arrested and the director forces them to deal with the true consequences of their actions, he once again revisits the question of truth. Did Warren really have a fence who could sell these incredibly rare books? Did he even go to Amsterdam as he claims?

None of the men are pictured together following the act: was their brotherhood broken by guilt and prison time? It seems likely: all but one seemed remarkably free of grudge-bearing, however. Perhaps what struck me the most is at the point of a failed attempt, our lead protagonist Spencer narrates that he felt free, to have come so far to be thwarted by a bad situation that they stopped. At that point, they would have had no jail time; this would be but another story they’d tell to each other, friends, and family over alcohol on long nights spent reminiscing. Yet they were swept up by the events, none of them wanted to quit, they all wanted to be something more: to break free of the American prison, to no longer be caged animals.

Click here to watch American Animals.