A tense and exciting heist film, an emotionally charged coming of age film and a uniquely interesting documentary all wrapped up in one.
After winning an award for his outstanding directorial debut The Imposter (2012) Bart Layton returns with one of the most exciting films of the year, both in terms of its execution and its subject material. Visually interesting and expertly paced American Animals tells the story of four young university students and their attempt to rob extremely valuable and rare books from their college library. Very much a true story, Layton draws on his experience as a documentary filmmaker and blurs the line between fiction and fact so masterfully and mindfully that, as a viewer, it is difficult to not become utterly enthralled in the tale of these four young men.
Evan Peter’s performance as Warren is certainly a highlight. Charismatic as he is conflicted, Peter’s portrayal identifies a young man desperate to break away from real life and willing to try anything to cross that line into unknown territory where he believes he will find his salvation from his otherwise underwhelming current situation. The supporting actors of Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson all also work well and bring artistic license to the real life people they are portraying.
Intercut with interviews of the real people involved and affected by the audacious heist Layton stylishly attempts to fill in a story in which conflicted memories and disbelief among the four boys has led to several different versions of the tale with each getting a nod towards the truth leaving it up to the viewer to decide what is truth and what is fiction. Furthermore, including these sequences, in which the audience hears the story first hand from those who were there, grounds an otherwise over the top and rumbustious romp allowing for a significant emotional pay off in the third act as the boys begin to realise what it is they’ve done and the consequences that are sure to follow.
Whilst the film does attempt to break new ground and redefine both the biopic genre and the heist film genre, it does fall into many of the clichés and tropes of these categories and as a result, in terms of its individual elements, does not offer up anything particularly new that we as an audience haven’t seen before. The build up to the heist is fun, exciting and much like a fantasy to the boys. The post-heist on the other hand is scary and more trouble than it was worth. This is not a particularly new thematic concept nor is it delivered in a particularly unique way. However, one can argue that Layton has done this on purpose as the boy’s do overtly begin to believe that their lives are a movie, (they even use the code names from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992)) that they are effectively invincible and immune to the consequences. The resulting cocktail of heist film, biopic, documentary and coming-of-age tropes is a uniquely interesting film, even if the individual elements themselves have all been seen before.
Layton’s American Animals is somewhat of an achievement. Not necessarily because it breaks any ground or brings something new to the table but because it is a strong attempt at doing so. Other than the story itself you won’t find anything you haven’t seen before in this film however, the subject matter alone is of interest enough to keep you wrapped up in the story of these four young boys so much so that the emotional pay-off is worth it at the end, even if the attempted heist certainly was not.