American Animals review Barry Keoghan Evan PetersYear: 2018
Director(s): Bart Layton
Writer(s): Bart Layton
Region of Origin: USA

Rating: R
Color, 116 mins

Synopsis: Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history. (Source)

How many times have you heard the phrase, “truth is stranger than fiction”? With American Animals, director Bart Layton presents a story that challenges this idea. Of course, the truth in Layton’s yarn is buried beneath a labyrinth of riotous misinformation, hazy memories and absurd excess. Centering on a group of bored Tarantino junkies, Layton tracks four misguided college students as they attempt to change their lives through an amateur heist. Twisting things into new territory, Layton bends documentary structure into a fourth-wall breaking, self-aware caper that concludes with a sobering downbeat. Hands down, this thing is unlike anything we’ll see all year – it’s infectious and oddly affecting.

Childhood friends Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) are students at Kentucky’s Transylvania University. Spencer’s an aspiring artist, while Evan is wasting an athletic scholarship. Nearing the end of term, neither can shake a feeling of existential dread, carrying the weight of  aspirations that haven’t been met. That’s when things lock into focus, sort of. During a visit to the campus library, Spencer discovers a special collections exhibit. Permanently displayed yet lightly guarded, the collection contains priceless books, including a centerpiece collecting paintings from famed artist and ornithologist, John Audobon. One thing leads to another, and before anyone can grasp what’s at stake, Spencer and Warren have assembled a team, consisting of fellow students Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner). Together, these four blindly follow each other towards a heist that will change their lives forever.

What hooks us about Layton’s film, of course, is how its told. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill heist film. It’s a pseudo-documentary where the real men involved contradict a cheeky dramatization that spins truth into tall tale. Layton masterfully transforms his varying accounts into a tense plot that’s both funny and unpredictable. What starts out as a breezy caper in which the actual Spencer, Warren, Eric and Chas challenge each other’s recollections, soon becomes a philosophical musing on our drive to push past self-perceived limits. Each of us has a line that we promise we’ll never cross. This film is about what happens when we keep moving this marker forward, only to realize that we’ve gone way past the point of no return. At this point, do we like who we’ve become or even recognize ourselves? Cleverly, the film uses these ideas to turn an eye toward suburban malaise, toxic masculinity and ultimately remorse.

American Animals review Evan PetersGiven the film’s meta reflection and the use of both actors and non-actors, the performances are a unique element that can’t be ignored. As much as these four characters attract through differences, so too does the diverse cast. Keoghan and Peters are the film’s anchors, allowing everything to be built on Spencer and Warren’s relationship, as they give us two, fascinating men struggling with inadequacy. The pair are the film’s stakes, parlaying friendship into a bond fraught with first world problems. Abrahamson and Jenner come in later in the picture, but still leave a mark as the two unwitting members of the crew. Balancing comedy with despair, each performer exhibits a deadpan appeal that’s contagious. As testimonials from the real Spencer, Warren, Eric and Chas bleed into the dramatization segments and vice versa, something special begins to form.

In a lot of ways, American Animals evokes postmodern satires like Fight Club, laying down honest truths about living in the shadow of the American Dream. Fittingly, this isn’t a heist film about what’s being stolen, but rather about virtues and dreams that are being lost from right under our protagonists’ noses. Using a blend of truth, fallacy and everything in between, Layton takes true crime to new heights, showing us a story that we’ve seen countless times before, but from a fresh, meaningful angle. Like the four characters within, we’re lured by the story’s promise of care-free thrills, but end up getting caught in its web of dizzying intrigue and unshakable resonance.

SG