Writer-director Bart Layton shot interviews documentary-style of four men who are in their 30’s who tell the story of how they robbed a library in 2004 of very expensive art-books by John James Audubon, the famous and iconic ornithologist. Layton then hired four actors to portray the four guys as they planned and executed the heist. Plenty of documentaries incorporate reenactments. The films of Errol Morris are such examples. Morris’ films can be half documentary and half fictionalization or reenactment. This film isn’t exactly half-and-half. The fictionalization here is greater, which is in line with films like American Splendor (2003) and Bernie (2012) where real-life people, sometimes the subjects themselves, are interjected most often for color or humor, but I think the way I, Tonya (2017) balanced the interjections of documentary-style interviews was much better handled than it is here.
What helps I, Tonya is that the story and the characters were way more interesting and compelling than the story and characters here. Yet, the characters’ status and personalities aren’t meant to be remarkable, which is part of the point. The four guys, regardless of their potential and privilege, don’t feel remarkable and concoct a heist, inspired by heist movies, in order to make themselves feel special or in their minds be special. Perhaps, Layton is critiquing the characters in that regard, their ignorance of that potential and privilege, or their disregard of that potential and privilege, as well as the fantasy of film itself to want to project a grandiose version of themselves either in their minds or to the world.
However, the movie never sells me completely on the lives or the relationships between the four guys. Evan Peters (American Horror Story and X-Men: Days of Future Past) stars as Warren Lipka, the ringleader who’s introduced as a thief who spouts liberal-activist positions. He’s a student at the University of Kentucky. Later, it’s revealed he’s studying filmmaking but it’s never stated if that was his original course of study or if he had some other major. His parents are later revealed to be splitting up but what his childhood was like remains unknown.
Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) also stars as Spencer Reinhard, a student at Transylvania University. Spencer is studying art. He’s in fact a painter or he does drawings. In the film, we see him making face-portraits. Later, he does portraits of birds, not unlike Audubon himself. It was in Spencer’s school that Audubon’s original works are held. He’s best friends with Warren, probably since childhood, but how they met or why they bonded also remains unknown.
There is documentary interviews with the real Reinhard and Reinhard’s actual parents who communicate misgivings with the two boys’ friendships. Yet, it’s never clarified why they have these misgivings or even what the misgivings are. Maybe Reinhard’s parents know that Lipka has a criminal record or something, but we never get a reason.
Jared Abrahamson (Awkward and Fear the Walking Dead) co-stars as Eric Borsuk, a loner and accounting major who gets roped into the heist. Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen and Everybody Wants Some) also co-stars as Chas, a young entrepreneur who similarly gets roped into the heist. Yet again, how the friendships developed remains unknown. Eric and Chas just appear almost out of nowhere like magic. Arguably, Ocean’s Eleven (2001), which is referenced here, does a similar thing with characters just appearing like magic, but the large cast necessitated those short-hands. This movie didn’t need those short-hands or overlooks.
Instead of developing the boys’ relationships, it does this thing where Layton replays certain scenes twice in order to comment on the infallibility of memory or the contradictions in perspective. I, Tonya makes similar points, but that movie really establishes the conflict between people’s memories and perspectives from the beginning and throughout. This movie doesn’t properly establish that and it never feels as if Warren and Spencer’s perspectives are at war with one another. It just comes across as cute that they remember details differently. The conflict of their testimonies is a thread dropped at the end that feels too late and that doesn’t hold up.
Rated R for language, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD.