American Animals Review

American Animals

2018 has seen a few heist movies grace our screens, from the recent Oceans Eight to the upcoming King of Thieves.

And, of course, Mission Impossible 6: Fallout. After all, what is the Mission Impossible franchise but a series of heist movies on steroids?

At the completely opposite end of the spectrum, comes this lower-key yet stylistic film from documentary-maker Bart Layton.

American Animals tells the story of a real-life robbery perpetrated by an unlikely quartet of college students at Transylvania University, Kentucky, back in 2004.

As the film boldly declares, it is not based on a true story; it IS a true story.

We first encounter Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) participating at a frat party. He doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself amidst all the revelry and we soon discover that he is unfulfilled in his arts studies, desperately wishing for something to change in his life.

Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) is the lively Yin to Reinhard’s introverted Yang. At college by virtue of an athletic scholarship, Lipka is similarly unengaged in his studies, and his future in general.

Upon a chance visit to the rare book collection in the university library, Reinhard’s eye is caught by an original and extremely valuable edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, amongst other rare books.

Mentioning this to Lipka, the two slowly formulate a plan to steal and sell the books for millions.

Initially the plan seems to consist of fanciful daydreaming but soon builds to full-on plotting.

The two enlist help from fellow students Erik Borsuk, to help with ‘logistics’, and Chas Allen, to act as getaway driver.

There wouldn’t be much of a story if all went to plan, which should give you an idea of broadly what to expect.

The film feels influenced in a sense by the Coen Brothers’ work. The idea of suburban non-criminals stumbling their way through hare-brained schemes with very serious consequences is one frequently revisited by the Coens. And the twist in the opening disclaimer feels reminiscent of Fargo’s true-story claim.

That said, Layton injects his own style into proceedings, with a visually flashier and more kinetic feel than the Coens, and manages to tonally juggle the elation of the planning phase with the ugliness of the crime itself.

The film crucially captures the feeling of disillusioned youth, with charismatic performances from Love/Hate’s Keoghan, a star in the making, and the always watchable Peters.

There are some things which don’t work so well.

Lipka and Reinhard feel fleshed out as individuals, but their true motivation towards such an audacious crime, as well as the motivations for Borsuk and Allen to join them, are thinly-sketched at best.

This may be one of the reasons why the film has come under fire for its subject matter.

Rather than motivated by financial necessity, it is suggested that boredom and a desire to stand out from the herd were the main catalysts of events.

Add in the social background of the participants and it’s easy to see that the notion of white, middle-class Americans involved in immoral acts, not only committed on a whim but parlayed into celebrity, is an unappealing one. Now more than ever.

Should this detract from the creative choices of the film itself? It’s not so easy to separate the film from reality.

The film is interspersed with talking-head footage from all of the actual participants in the crime, as well as their actual parents, and ultimately the actual victims.

The film also plays, Rashomon-like, with the reliability of the narrative with some of the recollections directly contradicting each other. As the film progresses, it is increasingly difficult to recognise fact from fiction.

The divide between life and art is further blurred by the gang’s reliance on rented heist movies such as Rififi and The Usual Suspects, as well as knowingly riffing on scenes from Ocean’s Eleven and Reservoir Dogs.

If you can manage to separate an enjoyment of the movie from an opinion on the real-life events, as I did, you will find this to be an engrossing and darkly funny heist film which showcases some top performances.

Connor Brennan

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September 2018
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