Film Review: American Animals

Fascinating and original docudrama hybrid about four college boys who commit an absurd crime.
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Midway through Bart Layton’s American Animals, the filmjarringly, brilliantly switches gears. Based on a real-life 2004 caper centering on four youthful jerks committed to pulling off a preposterous heist in order to feel “special,” it abruptly morphs into a depiction of terror as they spiral out of control, coming to grips with the reality of what they’re doing. Their fear of failure and capture is palpable. So, too, is their realization that their crime is not victimless.

In Lexington, Kentucky, dimwitted art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and his best pal, burnt-out jock Warren (Evan Peters), come up with a scheme to steal, among other valuables, theoriginal edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America—hence the film’s title—housed in the library of their school, Transylvania University. The boys have little doubt they can cop the iconic work without too much effort, despite the ever-watchful presence of archival librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), and sell it for a lot of money.

Along the way, they recruit fellow students, bored math maven Chas (Blake Jenner) and money-obsessed Eric (Jared Abrahamson). They travel to New York to ferret out a willing fence (Udo Kier), concoct disguises for themselves as four geezers and set the crime date for finals week, when almost everyone will be holed up in classrooms.

Resolved to tackle any possible contingency, they bone up on old crime movies, their reference points and educational tools, all the while failing to notice that many of these flicks show grandiose criminal schemes self-destructing—e.g., Fight Club and Reservoir Dogs. They have a fine time playing film thieves and are deadly earnest in their collective view that these cinematic creations are valid role models. The boys’ misplaced ambition, determination and schooling are tinged with a grotesque comic thread. (Think Logan Lucky.)Layton clearly enjoys his montage of movie nods, from the film’s narrative choices to its stylistic look and sound (Ocean’s 11 comes to mind). In the end, the work he’s created is wholly original.

The film is framed in a documentary-like structure and features the real-life culprits, now in their early 30s and looking back at their youthful selves, reflecting on what they did and why. No spoiler alert: They were caught and spent seven years in the state penitentiary. These snippets (which also include interviews with family members) are interspersed throughout. At several points, the mature men interact with their fictionalized counterparts onscreen. It’s a bit pretentious, but for the most part the conceit works. Still, the question remains: How to reconcile the gap between their young and older selves? How does the explosive young Warren become the thoughtful, mature adult?

Equally intriguing, the actors inhabiting characters often feel far more authentic than the originals. Dowd, always terrific, is certainly more three-dimensional as the prim and proper librarian than B.J. Gooch herself, who emerges as fatuous, offering life lessons about the importance of a good work ethic. Here it is: Truth is stranger—surely less compelling and at times less truthful—than fiction.

American Animalsis a quirky hybrid that takes the themes explored in Layton’s The Imposter (a documentary about a trickster and those who chose to believe him) to the next level, touching on the heady topic of reality, the distortions of memory, and personal interpretation (shades of Rashomon). The film openswithalternating titles that state "This Is…” followed by "This Is Not Based on a True Story."

The harsh visual palette also works wonderfully. It’s established immediately as the camera closes in on Audubon’s glass-encased, legendary book, its cover displaying wildly colorful birds of prey whose exaggerated body shapes and intimidating expressions evince savagery. Initially, the image serves as comic contrast to the moronic young crooks play-acting codgers sporting grey hair, heavy coats and old-man hats, with their sights set on lifting the renowned work.

Later, as the narrative unfolds, the painted vultures mirror all too vividly the brutality that transpires as our heroes find themselves totally unprepared for the consequences of their actions. The crime-movie glitz has been stripped away, revealing an ugly underbelly—most pointedly when they are faced with tying up and gagging the terrified, screaming, begging-for-mercy librarian. Dowd’s performance in that scene is bone-chilling.

All the acting is fine, especially Peters as the swashbuckling outlier proudly displayinghis upper arm adorned with a tattoo of a T-Rex switching on a ceiling fan; and Keoghan, the befuddled painter, convinced that an artist whose life is devoid of suffering cannot create great art. Both lads grew up hearing that they were somehow singular, only to discover it’s not true and that in actuality they have little to look forward to. Spencer is sorrowful; Warren is enraged and betrayed.

They and their co-conspirators believe the crime is their ticket to life-defining significance. My one quibble:As riveting as the film is, the characters are not fully fleshed out or accounted for. Their motivations are thin; this is particularly problematic for Jenner and Abrahamson, who have little to work with.

Still, Layton’s narrative film debut is impressive; so too are Nick Fenton, Julian Hart and Chris Gill’s fast-paced editing and Anne Nikitin’s deliberately derivative jazzy score. American Animals is a stylish, entertaining and disturbing movie, a well-worn tale that’s familiar and, paradoxically, brand-new.

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