I have to be completely honest- I’m not a fan of films that have anything to do with heists. It’s not my jam. However, I went into American Animals as a completely blank slate, without expectations and I came out better for it. And considering it was my first film on my NZIFF 2018 schedule, I wasn’t prepared for it to be as buzz-worthy and satisfying as it ultimately was.
American Animalsis the true tale of four young college students who take on an audacious plan to steal rare books from the Transylvania University library in 2004. Bored by their lives and chafing against parental and societal constraints, they set out to pull off the heist with meticulous planning, but forget one vital element: the human animal is the most unpredictable element of all.
Art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is looking to elevate his art career with an experience akin to the tragedies of Monet or Van Gogh. Life of the party Warren (Evan Peters) is on an athletic scholarship and questioning why he’s strived for it his entire life. Eric is majoring in Accounting so he can fast track a career in the FBI. Chas (Blake Jenner) is a born entrepreneur and is driven by success. They all have their lives ahead of them, but the adrenaline of the heist and being elevated out of the ordinary is far too tempting.
What elevates American Animals above other true story fare, is that writer/director Bart Layton has very cleverly woven the real with the fabricated by not only having the real men involved in the crime telling their story to camera. But at points also having them interact with the actors playing them in the fictional depiction.
You may have seen Layton’s extraordinary 2012 documentary The Imposter, and he has been able to brilliantly fuse the conventions of documentary filmmaking with narrative to create something truly unique. It’s also something that is embedded into the bones of the film itself, asking the audience the questions: where do people play a part in their own narrative? Are we recalling something we definitely remember, or are we recalling it the way someone else said it was?
Layton is also very careful not to glorify the crime as well. While in the first act the audience will find themselves chuckling at hi-jinks and missteps, things get very dark towards the end of the second act and well into the third. You will be reminded that this was not a victimless crime. You will be left in no doubt as to the ramifications of this heist. To make this hit home, Layton has carefully balanced the two ends of the scale in terms of impact: we see the almost playful moments of planning, including Spencer and Warren watching heist movies to learn how to plan a heist and a slick imagined sequence of a Hollywood film-style heist set to A Little Less Conversation, which are in stark contrast to the later acts of the film.
And by also having the real people involved speaking to camera (not just the young men but also members of their family, a University faculty member and librarian Betty Jean Gooch), it hits home that this is not your standard movie fare – this really happened. It had consequences. You are witness to the aftermath – it’s in the eyes of the men involved, it’s in the faces of their loved ones, it’s in the strength and dignity of Betty Jean Gooch to be on camera and discuss this traumatic event.
I would be remiss in talking about the performances in American Animals, because they are extraordinary. I must confess, for an eternity after seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deerat NZIFF 2017 I had a great deal of trouble separating Barry Keoghan from his magnificently sociopathic turn as Martin, but as Spencer in American Animals he delivers a brilliant performance. Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson as Chas and Eric respectively bring near-exhausting levels of angst and tension to their roles – Chas and Eric, who are brought in on the heist plan in the second act of the film, serve as the tempering, ‘sensible’ voices of the group, and it will be their angst and anxiety in the third act that ramp up the tension for the viewer even more.
And as ringleader of the heist and party animal, Evan Peters brings his ability to embody a wide range of characters to the film with great depth. It’s also great to see Ann Dowd as Betty Jean “BJ” Gooch, the unwitting librarian who is charged with guarding the library’s treasures. Dowd was such a standout in The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s great to see her again in a role that is as far removed from her role as Aunt Lydia as you can get.
American Animals is slick, snappy and intelligent, with a huge amount of emotional depth and a satisfying narrative. I will be dragging everyone I know along to see it when it comes out on general release, because it’s just that good.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5