Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history.
We’ve all seen a heist movie and most of us are familiar with the beats they go through as they introduce you to the team, set out the plan and lay out the stakes before the main event occurs (Mark Kermode’s ‘Secrets of Cinema’ has a great episode on this genre). ‘American Animals’ is a heist movie at heart and follows a similar pattern to the above but the events depicted here aren’t glamorous, sexy or smart like the movies and director Bart Layton uses the mechanics of the genre to explore something much more thematically interesting. Layton is best known for his engrossing documentary ‘The Imposter’, which concerned a bizarre case of a child reuniting with his family after he had been missing for years, and ‘American Animals’ shares similarities with that film as documentary elements are fused with more traditional cinematic fare. The material is used as a jumping off point to tell an interesting story about crime and how it more often than not does not pay and I thought ‘American Animals’ was a very well put together film.
The film is based on the true events surrounding the robbery of several rare, valuable books from a university library in Kentucky, carried out by four young students. The film is mostly dramatised with the main characters depicted by the likes of Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan and Blake Jenner, but we also hear talking head style interventions from the actual perpetrators, who recap and recall their memories of the planning process and the crime itself. I liked how it cleverly blurs the line between fact and fiction, casting doubt on the recollections of the characters, and it plays with the audience by initially making you empathise with the individuals before flipping over to show the repulsiveness of their actions in graphic detail. The characters watch movies to influence their plan, but the actual heist here is messy, flawed and damaging and it doesn’t shy away from the collateral damage their actions caused.
Ultimately what you’re left with is the feeling that an utterly pointless crime was committed that did nothing but damage to those directly impacted as well as the perpetrators themselves, with regret the overwhelming feeling from all who were involved. I liked the style of the film and I was gripped by the story and the performances, and this is an accomplished feature debut from Bart Layton, and I’ll be intrigued to see what he does next.
Directed By: Bart Layton
Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Udo Kier and Ann Dowd