Review by James Lindorf
Writer-director Bart Layton (The Imposter) brings us American Animals, a thrilling docudrama of four friends who boldly attempt one of the most daring art heists in U.S. history. Unpredictable Warren (Evan Peters; American Horror Story) and aspiring artist Spencer (Barry Keoghan; Dunkirk), two friends from the suburbs of Lexington, Kentucky head the team of amateur thieves, the film follow the duo as the reality of college and adulthood fail to live up to expectations. Fearful that their lives have stalled, they organize the brazen theft of valuable books from the special collections library of Transylvania University, including Audubon’s Birds of America, which was the impetus for the crime. The pair enlisted the help of accounting student Eric (Jared Abrahamson; Travellers) and fitness fanatic Chas (Barry Jenner; The Edge of Seventeen), to meticulously plot the theft and subsequent fence of the stolen items.
The best way I can think of to describe this film is by saying it’s I, Tonya meets Ocean’s Eleven. It combines a traditional heist film and interviews with the real-life perpetrators. The segments with the real people add a unique flavor to the movie by being equal parts compelling, contradictory, and humorous. The film is beautifully shot and edited even if it felt a tad too long. Layton also puts together an excellent script for his two stars Peters and Keoghan.
It is their acting skill and the charisma of Peters that carry this film through any of its shortcomings. Sure, it could use a little more character development and a little more depth of motivation, but you could argue that Layton chose to stay close to real life. The real people were just a group in their late teens or early 20’s who wanted to be rich, saw an easy mark and decided it was better than working for everything they wanted.
Spencer is excessively mopey which contrasts beautifully with the manic Warren who is a welcomed energy whenever he is on screen. While they may lack a little depth, the other two characters are merely two-dimensional tools used to prop up our stars. Chas is there to drive fast, be homophobic and argues with Warren, other than that he stays in the background. Eric is more important overall to the heist, he is the fine details man, but other than pointing out weaknesses in the plan, he has nothing to offer. We see Spencer and Warren having normal lives and things they are sacrificing in the pursuit of riches and adventure the other two only exist to fill out the roster.
Is the movie going to be an all-time classic, no, but it was a good time and one I will watch it again. If I were forced to give it a score, I would say it was a 4 out of 5.