Genre: Crime, Drama.
Starring: Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson.
Year Of Release: 2018
Certificate: 15 (UK)
Runtime: 116 Minutes
Director: Bart Layton
Writer(s): Bart Layton
Synopsis: “Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history.” IMDB
American Animals has quite the unique set-up. It combines a straightforward dramatisation of a true-life Kentucky library heist with interviews of the four men who committed the central crime, marrying the two in a docu-drama format that delves into the reasons behind the ploy and the individual version of events from each of the participating students. Bart Layton’s restless crime-caper explores the intriguing motivations and agency behind the heist, brought to us through stars Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson and Ann Dowd.
At a loose end and feeling his life has no meaning, Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan) is in need of something exciting. He approaches rebellious student Warren Lipka (Peters) about teaming up to steal an extremely valuable edition of John James Audobon’s The Birds of America from Transylvania University, with the promise of millions for their trouble. They go about planning their mission, ultimately recruiting Chas Allen (Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Abrahamson) along the way. As the wheels begin to come off before setting foot into the library, the group begin to wonder whether it could work as tensions begin to flare and motivations are questioned. With the real culprits on hand to offer their understanding of the events leading up to the robbery, American Animals has the benefit of hindsight working in its favour – but even still, it cannot figure out what it wants to say here.
For a solid hour or so, American Animals engrossed me. A mixture of solid performances, bold direction and the fascinating real-life story at its heart compels, smartly embracing the contradictory perceptions and playing with the wildly unpredictable points-of-view to typically thrilling effect. It explores the group’s dynamic while beginning to tease a deeper thematic field that touches upon the trepidation of their actions in an intensely-felt character study of (in particular) Warren and Spencer: in these moments, Layton’s screenplay impresses by attempting to grapple with the more interesting elements of the story, namely ‘the why’.
“An inherent ugliness begins to seep in”
Layton’s bold and unapologetically so with the film’s stylish visual flair, enhanced by strong cinematography from Ole Bratt Birkeland and terrifically slick editing from Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Luke Dunkley and Julian Dart. It’s experimental without alienating itself from a mainstream audience, ensuring that the genre’s bells and whistles are present, if not as overtly featured. It sure wears its influences on its sleeve, frequently interweaving references to the likes of Ocean’s Eleven, Point Break and Heat throughout. All said, for the majority, American Animals is an energetic, almost insightful experience with a creativity in its filmmaking and vision that elevates the opening act especially.
But then an inherent ugliness begins to seep in. As the second act is wrapping up, it culminates in the theft (after a painstaking false start) marked by a moment of violence that sends the impeccably-balanced tone crashing down. Suddenly, in a crucial sequence intended to symbolise the transition from “bad boy delinquents” to “careless criminal obsessed with greed and power”, it completely botches the landing. You find yourself completely detached from the characters and their fates moving forward, with the film having thrown away the diligent work up until that point; it is shaped by an inevitability that the film’s script never circumvents, stretched over a dull, clock-watching concluding act.
Running at 117 minutes, it more than overstays its welcome. While the idea of exploring the aftermath of such a life-changing experience is far more interesting on paper, Layton cannot refocus post-heist. His third act is rough, in desperate need of a heavy trim in its current form; the structure plays a role in how it underwhelms when it matters, failing to coalesce in an organic, natural manner. Incredibly forced, the conclusion is a smug attempt to cross the documentary and drama threads and while the sporadic efforts worked in the first half of the film, here it misses the mark: it leaves a bitter taste long after the credits have rolled.
Barry Keoghan continues to impress after his ensemble-strengthening turn in Dunkirk and scene-stealing performance in The Killing of a Sacred Deer; although the role of Spencer Reinhard lacks the emotional gravitas and piercing intensity of those 2017 releases, it is another solid performance under his belt. Evan Peters asserts himself as a terrific young performer away from the blockbuster franchise and television series that sprung him to fame. His performance almost single-handedly props the final act up, well-rendered and seeped in a realism that documents Lipka’s undoing effectively.
In Conclusion: American Animals
After breezing through rather consistently, American Animals hits the breaks and it never recovers. It introduces something much more wicked and far less interesting: a toxic masculinity that takes over from the more complex, nuanced character building and development. It goes on to highlight that anything resembling thematic depth was a lie; this is a frustratingly shallow experience. It’s dramatic reconstructions work in the opening half, with the conflicting reports a source of some truly thrilling, intriguing moments; that it is squandered so in the final stretch is exasperating. With both the characters and the film unable to compose themselves, American Animals concludes on a sour note.
Despite some strong performances and a bold director at the helm, American Animals is fed to the lions and ripped apart in its final act. After exposing just how little it has to say, with its forced musings on redemption rather self-satisfied and unfulfilling, it wastes the accomplishments contained within the first and second act, exposing just how facile it becomes in the end stretch. Showing these boys as criminals fuelled by the need for feeling beyond a normal law-abiding lifestyle could have explored an intriguing, compelling and complex thematic canvas about gender, mindset, culpability and society – but in failing so drastically to nail that ending on, it validates their behaviour instead – and that left me feeling resentful.