Film review: ‘AMERICAN ANIMALS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built for Speed’

American Animals is a heist film with a difference. As the opening titles insist, it’s not based on a true story, it is true and almost qualifies as a docudrama as the real people involved periodically talk about the case.

The film concerns a 2004 robbery in which four college students plotted to steal rare and extremely valuable books from the library of the Transylvania University in Kentucky. At the centre of the story is impressionable young student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) who is drawn into the scheme by his very dubious new buddy Warren (Evan Peters); their relationship recalls that of the Narrator and Tyler Durden in Fight Club or even Bialystok and Bloom in The Producers. Recruiting two others – the cerebral Eric (Jared Abraham) and the self-proclaimed entrepreneur Chas (Blake Jenner) – they plan the heist down to what they think is the last detail but with loose cannon Warren in charge something has to go wrong.

At first, the four see a heist as an exciting and potentially lucrative lark and writer/director Bart Layton cleverly weaves in references to films like Oceans 11 to convey the gormless quartet’s misconceptions of what they’re doing. The reality of committing the robbery is much uglier than they imagine, however and the film makes a very abrupt but extremely affecting tonal shift as, at one point, a previously annoying character becomes a very sympathetic one. Layton also captures the agonising sense of guilt felt by decent people who, as a result of naivete, disenchantment with life, curiosity and manipulation, have done something that flies in the face of their normal moral code.

Layton, previously gave us the superb documentary The Imposter in 2012 and once again he appears fascinated by the way people attempt to construct an identity and the narrative of their lives. Here, characters constantly talk about standing at a crossroads in their life and having to choose between the drudgery of the world they know or the thrill of the unknown, which in this case could mean prison. As in The Imposter, Layton has us questioning the story-tellers’ credibility as their memories falter and they begin to doubt whether they recall what they really saw or what Warren has convinced them they saw.

Keoghan, who looks like the love child of Joel Edgerton and Miles Teller, makes a sympathetic but believable lead as the emotionally conflicted Spencer. Jared Abraham as Eric and Blake Jenner as Chas also give fine performances but stealing the film is Evan Peters who makes Warren a contemptible but charismatic figure. The film at times recalls I, Tonya as a group of misguided people embark on ill-advised crime. Like that film, American Animals reassures us that there are people out there who do dumber things than we do.

American Animals runs a little long and occasionally loses it tight grip on the audience but for the most part it’s a riveting crime film and a fascinating real-life study of people struggling with the bitter reality of the American Dream.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Docudrama/ heist movie.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Bart Layton.

Release date: 4th Oct 2018.

Running time: 116 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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