Review – ‘American Animals’ is a playful take on truth that lets its crooks off the hook

Poster for 2018 crime thriller American Animals

Genre: Thriller
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 7th September 2018
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: Bart Layton
Writer: Bart Layton
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier
Synopsis: A group of disaffected college students decide to steal a selection of valuable books from their university library, despite having no clue how to mount a heist.

 

 

Everything about American Animals screams fictional on paper, from the opening declaration that “this is not based on a true story; this is a true story” and the teenagers plotting to carry out a heist by watching Reservoir Dogs to the fact that their most coveted swag is a massive book featuring pictures of flamingos and the location of the heist being called Transylvania University. However, every detail I’ve just alluded to is completely true and, in order to make that point abundantly clear, writer-director Bart Layton has a dozen magician’s sleeves full of tricks up his own magician’s sleeve.

There’s a portion of the story that’s, mostly at least, pretty conventional. Nihilistic art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and his rebellious friend Warren (Evan Peters) are looking for something to jolt their lives into motion when they discover that their university is home to a haul of priceless books, protected only by a single librarian (Ann Dowd). They recruit buddy Erik (Jared Abrahamson) as the logistical brain of the operation and hire jock Chas (Blake Jenner) because he has a fast car. The entry barriers for this particular act of thievery are pretty low. If you’ve seen a few movies, you’re in.

And in a normal movie, that would be it. However, this is a Bart Layton production and so there’s a little more going on. His last film was the brilliant, slippery pseudo-documentary The Imposter, which conned the audience every bit as much as the protagonist conned those around him. If anything, the question of fuzzy truth has become all the more relevant since then and so he brings that idea to American Animals by including the real-life perpetrators of the heist as narrators and occasional participants in the action. Layton segues between fiction and interview often within the same scene and occasionally midway through a line of dialogue. It’s a neat trick and one that gives the movie its flair.

Outside of that impressive idea, American Animals benefits from some stellar performances. Keoghan, who was so brilliant in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is great as a directionless youth determined for something to make him feel special, while Evan Peters does his trademark whirlwind wildman shtick as the fella with enough of a death wish to push the whole thing over the line. What little heart the film possesses is provided by Ann Dowd as the kindly lady who finds herself falling victim to a group of people with a tonne of adrenaline running through their veins and absolutely no clue what they’re doing.

And it’s that characterisation that causes American Animals to run into problems. It seems determined to place the audience’s sympathies with the protagonist, allowing the real men to chuckle at their past actions through larky cinematic gags while claiming to have learned from what happened. On the one hand, they’re portrayed as laughable doofuses who will type “how to plan a heist” into Google and hit the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button but, on the other, we do see them beating a vulnerable woman unconscious. By involving their real life analogues in the movie, it feels as if it’s framing them as anti-heroes. On the one hand, they’ve all served their time but, on the other, they are actively benefiting from their crime.

The same qualities that make this movie fresh and entertaining ultimately serve to make it exhausting as the narrative moves into its final act. The constant self-referential comedy and narrative interruptions come across as a few flourishes too many and it’s eventually difficult to get too excited, like a magician who does the same trick a dozen times and still expects an applause. While the movie toys with the notion of contrition and consequences, it doesn’t seem fully comfortable to condemn its protagonists. When a character tells the camera that “it makes me wonder if they really know why they did it”, it’s a question that merits a proper response. American Animals, for all of its cinematic energy, doesn’t have the nous to answer it.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Bart Layton continues his quest to muddy the notion of cinematic truth with American Animals, which is an energetic and enjoyable heist movie populated with some very solid performances, including from the increasingly reliable Barry Keoghan.

Unfortunately, it outstays its welcome with a rather bloated running time and seems unwilling to criticise the real people at the heart of this shocking event.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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