Review: American Animals

June 1, 2018

There are two things that I really love to watch and find myself enjoying quite often — documentaries and heist films.  When I saw the trailer for American Animals I thought it was only a heist film.  I knew it was a true story and I knew that it was from director Bart Layton, who’s only other feature film was the incredible documentary The Imposter.  I thought this was simply Layton’s first step into non-documentaries and was excited that he was still making a film that was a true story.  I had no idea that American Animals is a truly original blend of both cinematic narrative and documentary done in a way that completely blew me away.

American Animals is the true story of the Audubon Heist from Transylvania University in Kentucky that happened in 2004.  I remember reading about this story in an odd news from around the world website and remember thinking it was a crazy story -- four college kids decided to attempt to steal over $10 million of rare books from a college library and then sell it on the black market.  I won’t tell you anything else and please don’t Google it so you don’t find out how it all ended.  Because this is a true story, this isn’t a heist film where the criminals are glorified as suave, well-dressed, geniuses or sexy conman.  This story is told exactly the way it happened.

One of the reasons for its accuracy is because of the revolutionary way Layton executed the film.  The real people these characters represent are in the film.  In some scenes they are talking directly to the camera like you’d see in a normal documentary.  In other scenes they are placed right in the dramatic recreations of how it all went down, interacting with the actors playing them.  It’s not as jarring or hokey as it sounds.  They mostly act like phantoms of consciousness trying to stop it from happening.  In others, they act as mournful or playful travelers through a bad dream.  Either way, it’s amazing and so much fun to watch.

The cast is really powerful but it's pulled by the leads of Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, FX’s American Horror Story) and Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer).  Keoghan plays a quiet but haunted character and Peters plays the brash, Tyler Durden-wannabe of the group.  Peters proves that he is a rising powerhouse of a performer capable of comedic charisma and intense anxiety.  The actual heist scene is filmed with such realism and panic that breathing is difficult while watching it.  American Animals is not the fun joyride you think it’s going to be but it’s also not so heavy-handed in morality that it becomes unenjoyable either.

Despite standing ovations at Sundance and a wildly well done trailer, I don’t expect this movie to do well.  However, American Animals is an achievement that deserves to be enjoyed again and again.  Layton proves his worth as a visionary and someone who’s ready for Hollywood to trust him with a big budget fictional narrative.  His command of the story doesn’t always stick the landing but his playfulness with reality and truth are infectious and it’s impossible not to walk away from this film with a smile on your face.