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Review: American Animals (2018)

American Animals (2018)

Directed by: Bart Layton

Premise: Based on true events. In 2004, four young men plot to steal items worth millions of dollars from the rare books collection at the Transylvania University library in Kentucky.

What Works: The term “docudrama” is often used to describe feature films based on true events but American Animals is a much better example of that term in the way it combines documentary and dramatic filmmaking. The bulk of the movie is a dramatization of the events in 2004 but the movie also intercuts contemporary interviews with the actual people involved and they reflect on the events as they unfold. Surprisingly, the interviews actually add substances to this story and are spliced into the movie without interrupting the film’s momentum. The interviewees are admirably forthcoming and self-effacing about this embarrassing chapter of their lives and they offer perspective that complements the performances of the actors playing them. The core cast of American Animals includes Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson. The actors are often funny together and they have a likable rapport that is convincing. This is critical to the success of the movie. This is in many ways a bizarre story but the actors and the filmmakers make the characters empathetic and their decisions credible. The film is in touch with the youthful naiveté of these young men in a way that’s likable instead of off-putting. The filmmakers do an excellent job of managing the tone of American Animals. Much of the first half is playful in the style of Hollywood heist flicks. In fact, the young men go about planning their crime by consulting movies and American Animals includes clever homages to heist films like Reservoir Dogs and Ocean’s Eleven. But the tone shifts at a critical point and criminal activity is no longer a hypothetical lark but a very real violation in which people got hurt. The heist sequences are genuinely gripping and the moviemakers accomplish something impressive. The lure of a heist movie is the thrill of the robbery. It’s what we’re here to see. The filmmakers fill us with dread and make us want the young men to walk away before they get in too deep. That makes American Animals more than just a heist film. It’s a story of young men losing their way in the pursuit of economic freedom and personal exceptionalism. 

What Doesn’t: American Animals has one strange flaw. In a lot of Hollywood movies, older actors are often hired to play younger characters and the age difference becomes obvious. The characters of American Animals are all college age and so are the actors playing them. However, a few of the characters don’t come across as college students, namely Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters. There is something in their look and in the way they carry themselves that is much more of high school adolescence. The story largely focuses Peters and Keoghan’s characters. That makes sense since they are old friends and much of the story begins with them. But the characters played by Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson aren’t nearly as well characterized. Also, for a movie about young people in 2004, a lot of the songs of American Animals are of an earlier generation with acts like The Doors and Leonard Cohen.

Bottom Line: American Animals is an impressive heist film. It’s alternately funny and gripping with strong performances and some depth. The picture may have a few generational incongruities but this is a smart and entertaining film.

Episode: #706 (July 8, 2018)