Without really thinking too much about it, I would have to say that the majority of my cinematic heist experience has been at the hands of the various Oceans movies over the last fifteen plus years (Ocean’s 8 FTW, don’t @ me). I enjoy the slick, sophisticated nature of that franchise, but having a little bit of knowledge of the real story behind Bart Layton’s latest feature American Animals, I was looking forward to a heist movie with a distinctly different flavour.
The film tells the real life story of Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuck (Jared Abrahamson), four college kids who planned and carried out the heist of a number of extremely valuable books from the special collections library of Transylvania University, Kentucky in 2004.
I’ll start with the positives, and there are definitely more than a few. American Animals is a film that takes a lot of risks and uses more interesting techniques than the average heist movie. The most noticeable among these is the choice to intersperse the dramatic action with talking head type interviews from the real life figures involved in the story, giving the film an almost documentary feel at times. Think the interview portions of I, Tonya, but if they had been given by Tonya Harding herself rather than Margot Robbie. It gives the film a really compelling edge, constantly reminding the audience of the reality of narrative rather than allowing us to lose ourselves in the fantasy of the operation.
Added to this is the really effective and efficient way in which the film transitions and cuts between scenes, and sometimes even mid scene, almost as if the recollections of the different characters are bleeding in to one another at certain points to create an unreliable narrative. Once again, this technique bucks all of the more usual devices of a slick heist movie, and really emphasis the element of unreliable narration that clouds the plot.
Low on the kind of blood pumping action that one might normally associate with a big heist movie, American Animals chooses instead to make things almost unbearably small scale, depicting its key moments in such a way that you can physically feel the visceral, unravelling nature of the hectic plot that begins very quickly to spiral out of control. This isn’t a classic bank job flick, the characters don’t have to navigate their slick moves around a building full of people, it focuses on one librarian (played by Ann Dowd) and the task to incapacitate her. I was actually surprised by just how tense such a small scale operation was made to feel on the big screen.
If I were to point out one glaring criticism of the film, and it’s certainly one of personal taste, it is that once the actual business of the heist kicks in, the quirky and creative techniques from the first third of the picture take a back seat, and as the plot descends in to chaos, the whole thing sort of just turns in to four white dudes shouting at each other. Though these passages no doubt feel real given the narrative circumstances, they just aren’t as enjoyable to watch as the more inventive and original stuff from the earlier stages of the film.
Without any of them being complete show stealers, the four central actors of the film do a solid and effective job. As Warren Lipka, Evan Peters displays lots of the off the wall, slightly unhinged characteristics that any American Horror Story fan will be well familiar with. His role as the dominant force and ‘loose cannon’ of the group is one that suits him well. If the film has a stand out protagonist, it is Barry Keoghan as Spencer Reinhard. The audience views much of the narrative from his perspective, and Keoghan does a really great job of evoking that perfect mixture of boredom, exasperation, desperation and vulnerability that makes up the personality of a privileged white college kid who could be persuaded in to carrying out something like this.
Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson make up the college quartet, in while their performances are on tone and totally satisfactory, they never really get their chance to shine compared to Peters and Keoghan. Someone who does get that chance, however, is Ann Dowd as Betty Jean Gooch, the unfortunate librarian. Dowd is a wonderful character actress who brings real quality to anything that she does, and her brief and scattered scenes make for some of the most memorable moment in the whole film.
Overall, American Animals is an engaging film, a heist drama that is more interested in its characters than in the details of its operation, which is a refreshing take that I haven’t seen too often. It is stylish, but more in a creative filmmaking sense compared the visual feast that something like Ocean’s 8 provides. Something that comes to mind in terms of a comparison is Baby Driver, and although that film arguably does a better job of maintaining its creative flare more consistently throughout its narrative, if you were a fan of that, than you will more than likely be a fan of this.