Writer/director Bart Layton’s 2018 film tells of events that took place in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004 – when art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), looking for a sense of purpose and adventure in his life, teamed up with petty criminal friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) to launch an audacious plan to steal several incredibly rare and valuable books from the University of Transylvania, later joined by the “brains of the operation” Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and the already wealthy Chas Allen (Blake Jenner). Told alongside interviews with the real life people involved in the pivotal events, the film follows the group as they plan out their daring heist and explores the dark fallout of their actions.
First of all, although American Animals could officially be labelled as a “dramedy” heist movie, with many of the tropes and conventions that that entails, it clearly attempts to do something different by occasionally breaking up the action with words from the people who were actually there; the film states quite clearly at the beginning that “This IS a True Story” so throughout, the film attempts to tell an exciting story whilst also taking time to let us know what was actually going through the guys’ heads, using interviews from the perpetrators, colleagues and family members. Blending the fictionalized narrative with the sporadic documentary segments is a unique direction for the film to go in but this technique isn’t entirely successful because the two “formats” don’t exactly gel together seamlessly and you may very well end up wishing that American Animals would just commit to one style – to either be a straight up heist movie or a documentary.
Towards the third act, this directorial decision also creates a bit of a problem because the film attempts to be hard hitting and emotional with some kind of message – showing the real life perpetrators displaying remorse and breaking down on camera – but while this may have been done with the best of intentions, the noticeably serious and sombre tone at the end of the film only serves to slow things down, the emotion isn’t genuine enough to warrant sympathy from the audience, and it again proves the two film styles to ultimately be too incompatible.
But with those negative points aside, fusing the heist narrative and the documentary segments also works in the film’s favour plenty of times too, because in telling the story from two different character perspectives, we can see the subjectivity of “the truth” and the film has fun in pointing out that certain details (such as the colour of a scarf, exactly where two characters had a conversation or what a mysterious contact looked like), when told by two different people can be completely at odds with each other. To the film’s credit, there are enough clever touches like this scattered throughout and Layton’s direction, along with the intricate editing, makes sure that there’s often something visually interesting and clever happening on screen – subtle details that you may miss on first viewing. Such as a specific instance involving holding a fork full of food in midair after having heard some devastating news.
Also because of this specific heist/documentary mashup technique, the film has a certain lighthearted tone and although much of the narrative gets dark and serious a lot of the time, American Animals definitely has a sense of humour and isn’t afraid to make a few jokes now and again; it’s not laugh out loud funny but watching the central group bungle their way through their plan is funny to watch and certain instances where the real life counterparts “invade” the narrative is unexpected, clever and fun. Bart Layton’s direction is sound as he effectively infuses the film with that sense of humour and also crafts the heist sequences with plenty of tension, danger and unpredictability, Anne Nikitin’s score works well, and the film also has a very fine soundtrack.
Fresh from his impressive appearances in Dunkirk and especially The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Barry Keoghan does well in his role of Spencer, starting off as a young student looking for meaning in his life and later finding adventure in the big heist, successfully showing how his character never truly believes that they’ll actually go through with it, just having fun with the craziness of it all; he also does well when showing remorse and uncertainty and overall, Keoghan is a more than capable performer. As the group’s “wildcard”, X-Men and American Horror Story‘s Evan Peters makes a big impact as the determined and reckless Warren Lipka, often being the comic relief as he interacts with the rest of the group and watches all the classic heist movies, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the big caper. But of course when things take a dark turn, he confidently shows his character’s insecurity, fear, anger and unpredictable nature and, as the most intriguing character of the film, Peters suits the role very well.
Rounding out the cast, Jared Abrahamson has a unique look and fine chemistry with the rest of the crew (especially with Evan Peters), Blake Jenner (although his character is the least developed) gets to do something a little darker than his usual “prettyboy jock” roles of Everybody Wants Some!! and The Edge of Seventeen, and the mighty Ann Dowd of Handmaid’s Tale and Hereditary fame is always a welcome presence on the big screen, playing the unfortunate librarian who the crew is forced into “getting out of the way”.
It’s also impressive how very similar the actors look to their real life counterparts. Apart from Barry Keoghan’s character who looks far more like Topher Grace.