American Animals, 2018.
Written and Directed by Bart Layton.
Starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abramson, Udo Kier, Ann Dowd, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk.
Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history.
Imitation is supposedly the sincerest form of flattery, but is it possible for homages to feel cheap and uninspired in a heist story where the characters are overly reliant on similar films to guide their art gallery robbery (paintings of birds from John James Audubon locked away and securely watched over inside Transylvania University, valued at millions of dollars)? Most regular readers of my content have probably gathered that I’m a massive fan of Quentin Tarantino (yes, even accounting for some admittedly stupid things he has said in the past), so the thought of these misguided college students in cahoots (attempting to pull this off for varying reasons) reenacting the iconic scene from Reservoir Dogs where every member of the group is given a color as a codename certainly tickles my fancy, but it’s also the instance where I had the eureka moment essentially that American Animals is a middling effort using these famous lines, right down to the Mr. Pink argument, to cover up its own weak script.
Luckily, I can also tell you the turning point where American Animals finally won me over and will for anyone else not entirely sold, which boils down to a third act reveal that makes clear why writer and director Bart Layton has chosen to include documentary-style cutaway interviews to the real-life subjects of the incident (now middle-aged, and if my math is correct, in their 30s) drip feeding different versions of the truth (a narrative device most recently seen in the outstanding Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya, barring the usage of real-life counterparts). Is it a little late to completely redeem the movie into something truly special? Yes, but by the end, there is no denying that Bart Layton (most known for the documentary The Imposter) has once again found a creative way to play with the structure of biopics and reality versus dramatization.
Also present is an intriguing dynamic regarding Warren (Evan Peters as the brash and bold youngster convinced that the assembled team of academics is skilled enough to get away with a perfect crime) comes from a dysfunctional family which no doubt further influences his decision to go off and commit this felony, while Spencer (Barry Keoghan continues to use the shy and timid personality from his breakout performance in The Killing of a Sacred Deer to his advantage as an actor, but here is working with more empathetic material) occasionally is overcome with cold feet at the idea burdened with the thoughts of how the potential scenario of jail time should he get caught would affect his idyllic family.
The question then on everyone’s mind is probably “why do it in the first place”. Spencer mentions the idea in passing to Warren as a halfhearted musing not meant to be taken seriously, although his iffy aspirations to find a greater purpose in life inevitably gets the better of his conscience. The pair is also joined by Blake Jenner once again playing a chiseled sports athlete but here less unintelligent than one might assume going in, and Jared Abrahamson as the mathematical brains behind the operation. While these individuals are seemingly book smart, they are not equipped with the means to successfully accomplish their mission, stumbling into panic mode situations (dressed with convincing makeup as elderly men) both resulting from their own lack of foresight and random occurrences impossible to have predicted. American Animals has a terrific small ensemble of bright young actors, but it is Keoghan and Peters who stand out thanks to receiving the most material along with juxtaposed opposite lives despite their close friendship.
Another fascinating aspect viewers will assuredly ponder watching American Animals is whether it deserves to be labeled as fiction or documentary. The film actually opens with writing expressing that “this is not based on a true story” before excluding some of those words to more appropriately say that “this is a true story” rather than the standard “based on a true story” wording. It’s the kind of thing you laugh at before understanding what the movie actually is and about, meaning that it’s not long before such a simple touch can feel strikingly genius. At the end of the day, American Animals is compromised of at least 75% of scenes containing trained actors, but that doesn’t excuse the element of reality. One also has to wonder if the content from the actual subjects is a work of scripted performance or off-the-cuff truthful sentiments.
American Animals certainly isn’t the most exciting or intense heist film, and definitely isn’t something to write home about, but again, that blurring of the lines between reality and dramatization coupled with some intriguing character motivations portrayed by excellent actors makes it more than enough to recommend. If nothing else, it’s great that in 2018 we can say that heist films are finding new ways of coming across as refreshing even with the faults here considered. There is also no denying that it is stylistic and visually impressive featuring beautiful works of accomplished and revered art that speaks to the characters, specifically Spencer. And come on, the site of these strapping young men dressed up as old geezers for the big day is both darkly amusing and awesome.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com