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American Animals tangles with a number of weighty themes, but never at the expense of delivering a queasily compelling true crime thriller.
American Animals tangles with a number of weighty themes, but never at the expense of delivering a queasily compelling true crime thriller.
All Critics (191)
| Top Critics (33)
| Fresh (168)
| Rotten (23)
I was on the edge of my seat.
"American Animals" is one of the year's smartest, most captivating films, and Layton stages it with the precision of a perfect crime.
[The kids'] meticulous preparations begin with typing "how to plan a heist" into Google and continue with watching every heist film ever made, though they manage to overlook the primary lesson of all such films-that something always goes wrong.
It hits the usual genre beats, and plays a predictable rock soundtrack as it lurches between comedy and drama, but neither the story nor the characters really mesh.
Takes a mild curiosity from a long-ago news cycle and elevates it into something singularly fascinating.
A narrative drama wherein beats the heart of a documentary.
A gripping heist movie with a surprising amount on its mind, and a film that feels tailor-made for our post-truth times.
A spectacularly playful and entertaining film that blurs the line between documentary and drama.
While the aftermath is known from the start, the trip to get there is riveting.
Never manages to balance the documentary and drama elements to make a meaningful whole.
If you've ever daydreamed about plotting a robbery of your own, this film will remind you that you probably aren't as smart as you think you are.
While American Animals might be as ambitious as The Imposter, it fails to hit the same levels of brilliance though it remains an entertaining watch.
Poor people fight to create a life.
Privileged people create fights to feel like theyï¿ 1/2(TM)re living.
Imposter director Bart Layton weaves together documentary-style interviews with the highest quality re-enactments you've ever seen to the tunes of The Doors and Elvis Presley. The energy is infectious, the performances are quietly spectacular-Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner are each well-drawn with their performances only further stressing certain inevitabilities-while Layton can't help but to emphasize his thesis that these guys ultimately did what they did in order to feel special so that the world would finally admit what they'd been fed their entire lives. It's especially fascinating in parts, a movie lover's wet dream in others, but comes slightly undone in the final stretches with the film massaging that thesis one too many times in order to find an answer to a question that is satisfied simply by having pieced together the events and multiple perspectives of this true story.
BAD FELLAS - My Review of AMERICAN ANIMALS (4 Stars)
In his supremely confident narrative directorial debut, Bart Layton, whose documentary THE IMPOSTER showed off his storytelling and visual skills, has created something totally original out of what many may feel are used parts. His AMERICAN ANIMALS, which he also wrote, incorporates documentary elements into the story of a heist so seamlessly, it's as if he's invented a new genre, one shot through with a suspense and an urgency I haven't felt in quite some time.
The opening card: NOT BASED ON A TRUE STORY dissolves into A TRUE STORY, announcing itself as a film not likely to take dramatic liberties. That would be an understatement. Layton combines traditional genre elements with interviews by the real people and their loved ones. In one key scene, the real person interacts with the actor portraying him. Although highly satirical and dark (think I, TONYA if the real Tonya Harding had done the sit-down interviews), this hybrid style deepens the empathy you feel for a quartet of idiotic kids.
Evan Peters (AMERICAN HORROR STORY) and Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) play Warren and Spencer respectively, a pair of bored Kentucky college students who stumble upon a set of extremely valuable books in their school's library. One in particular, James Audobon's Birds Of America, sits in a locked glass case in the Special Collections section and is worth upwards of $12 million. Steal the books, sell to the highest bidder, and they're drowning in umbrella drinks in the Bahamas for the rest of their lives.
Needing more people to succeed in their mission, they enlist a wealthy jock, Chas (Blake Jenner from EVERYBODY WANTS SOME and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson), a bookish nerd. Sooner than you can say OCEAN'S FOUR, they have scoped out the library, drawn up plans, purchased old man costumes and are on their way. Ann Dowd (THE HANDMAID'S TALE) plays Betty Gooch, the librarian they must contend with in order to steal the books, and if there's one thing I've learned by observing pop culture, whenever you have the great Ann Dowd in anything, you've got a formidable opponent. Just listen to the way she pronounces every syllable of every word and passes that off as normal! She's the best we have.
Layton uses a lot of Martin Scorsese's techniques in telling his story, including brilliant music choices (I can never get enough of KISS' "New York Groove") and honed-in framing of shots to economically and brilliantly keep things moving forward at all times. This movie feels like a freight train, never letting up and filled with dynamic performances by its talented cast. The real person interviews add a layer of vulnerability to what could have easily been a minor, B-movie heist story, causing you to reflect on the "why" of the whole matter. Sure, they were just dumb kids, but it was something about their lives that felt like a dead end. They craved excitement like Faye Dunaway did in BONNIE AND CLYDE or Sissy Spacek in BADLANDS. Yes, it comes across as white middle class bratty entitlement, but this gang (and their real counterparts) do a great job of making you care. The American Dream isn't just dead, this films seems to be saying, but it has woken up and can't go back to sleep.
Peters is sensational as the wildest of the bunch, their proverbial ringleader. A bit of a sociopath, he shoplifts just to get a rise out of people and he is so bored, he doesn't mind traumatizing others. The fact that he can make this pretty awful character so compelling is a testament to his skills. Keoghan is a major talent as well, finding fear in the stillness of his character, able to panic without moving a muscle. Jenner, who has pretty much stuck to his pretty boy jock persona in every role he's played, does the same here, except he has a breakout scene in a car in which he brandishes a gun and lets loose on his comrades which showed a heretofore untapped depth in this actor. It's an incredible scene and his rage and disappointment in his friends brings such heart and unusual sanity to the story. Abrahamson also has great moments as the nervous guy who wants no part of the violence coming their way. Even though you just know things aren't going to go well for these guys, you may find yourself rooting for them anyhow. Try watching the scene where they try to escape the library without hoping nobody looks up from their books.
AMERICAN ANIMALS is an astute morality tale, allowing flawed characters to have opposing points of view, all of which are right somehow. It addresses that thin line we all walk between right and wrong. It never forgets the victims while peeling back the layers of its den of thieves. It's as completely an American tale as urgent and as relevant as I, TONYA and THE FLORIDA PROJECT, yet with the added bonus of having a very unique voice at the helm, whose next films I can't wait to see. I'm a little late to the party with this film, which was released back in June and is available for streaming now, but it's one of the best films of the year.
This review is weeks late after having sat down and watched American Animals, and it's stuck with me in a powerful way. It's a movie that pulls back the disparity between crime in the movies, so stylized and slick and carefree, and crime in real life, often traumatic, dehumanizing, and with lifelong complications for both victim and perpetrator. It's a movie that examines a youthful sense of ennui that their lives are missing out on something extraordinary, and a step too far over a very clear moral line thanks to a fantasy given shape by escapist movies and other media. It's also a slippery I, Tonya-style look at memory and contradiction but this time from the real-life people involved. It's an entertaining dark comedy, an unexpected true-crime caper, and most resonating of all, a nerve-wracking thriller that left me morally queasy and unwell, but in a good way. In short, American Animals is one of the best films I have seen so far in 2018.
In 2004, at a small Kentucky liberal arts university, four young men are planning their own version of the "perfect crime." The school has a rare books section including an original copy of Darwin's Origin of Species and a large and valuable edition of John James Audobon's The Birds of America. The books are appraised at $12 million dollars. Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an art student, teams up with Warren (Evan Peters), Erik (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner) to plot a daring heist. The men feel like their lives are missing something exciting and a heist is just the ticket. They just have to break in, steal the books, and subdue a librarian (Ann Dowd). Easy stuff, right?
For the first half of the movie, American Animals plays out like a dark comedy. I had no prior knowledge that we were going to get the real-life subjects appearing as themselves in interviews cut throughout the film (their family members are still actors though). The film even plays around with this narrative hook for a few laughs, making quick cuts for punchlines and trying to square conflicting accounts, like having one scene alternate between two locations in dispute of its telling. It also helps set one of the major themes going forward in a nimble fashion, namely the difference between the reality of events and the whimsical, fantasy movie version of what an excursion into crime would be like. Having been bred on cinema's glorified depictions of heists, the guys come to assume that a heist is sexy and fun and something that doesn't end up hurting anyone. There's a charming quality to the fact that Spencer uses his art skills to create models of the rare books room. There's a laughable ingenuity to the fact that they're planning on holding the heist in the middle of their class exams, since who would suspect students during that important time? There's a bemused naiveté about the power of their disguises when they dress as a shuffling group of old men in powdered faces. We're set up for a funny story about bumbling students falling all over themselves at attempted criminal shenanigans.
I was expecting a relatively light movie just from the plot particulars. It's a heist film and the goal is to steal a bunch of books. It seemed small-scale in scope and anodyne. What trouble could a group of students get into attempting to steal books? Writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) seems to know this, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. He even teases the movie version of what the heist might be like, with our characters suavely stepping into their parts with practiced precision, all while music reminiscent of the Ocean's Eleven franchise hums in the background. This is the cool-movie version, the version the characters have fantasized over in their minds, and the version that the audience is more attuned to expect. What we actually get is something very different. The heist itself plays out in excruciating detail and it runs counter to their planning. The reality of subduing the librarian is upsetting. It's supposed to be so simple, after all, but the reality is anything but. The characters almost avoid this whole scenario, aborting their heist only to return back to it the next day. You feel the anguish of how close they were to turning away at several steps, the moments this ordeal could have been avoided, and yet fate barrels onward, energized by a misplaced sense of purpose. American Animals doesn't let you or its characters off the hook either. I was fidgeting and sweating nervously throughout the heist and its subsequent fallout. Again, this is all about a bunch of stolen books, and I was beside myself with anxiety.
It's only afterwards and looking back that you realize how masterfully Layton has built up his scenes and the necessary information to make you squirm. With every heist, the particulars of the setting, the challenges and tight window need to be established, and once that occurs, we're hoping for unexpected complications. But in order for those unexpected consequences to really hit hard, we have to be trained with what Plan A was going to be, and American Animals does this superbly. People have their designated roles and areas they refuse to partake in, like Eric makes it clearly known he will not be responsible for subduing the librarian in any way. Of course, you can expect what will eventually happen, pushing his character to an even more uncomfortable place. I was very appreciative that there's an extended resolution after the heist, where the guys try to unload the books to a seller, and the further complications. You really feel the screws being tightened and the overwhelming feeling of dread. It's another confirmation for me that I'm just not cut out for a life of crime. The day-to-day anxiety is just too much.
I left this movie feeling a strange mixture of jubilation and sadness, still reeling from the expertly developed and executed moral tension. The technical skills are just as strong, each working in succinct harmonious sequence to bring about Layton's vision to startling effect. The editing is extremely tightly constructed. The smooth cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland frames the tension and comedy expertly, and the ominous music by Anne Nikitin kept me on the edge of my seat. It's almost like a full-blown David Fincher film by the end. The acting is another strong point, with each actor initially relegated into a stock role ("The Muscle," "The Wheelman," etc.) we've come to associate with these kinds of movies. The film nicely pushes the characters beyond a casual, cursory understanding, blurring the lines of who they are as they blur lines of their own. A surprise standout is Blake Jenner (unrelated to the Kardashians/Jenner clan) who joins the team the latest, seems like a stereotypical rich jock lunkhead, but when he breaks down and articulates why the team is as screwed as they are, his clarity can catch you off guard. He's the first to realize they've trashed their lives and are doomed and for nothing. Also deserving of praise is the always-wonderful Ann Dowd (The Handmaid's Tale); your heart hurts for this poor woman who is confused, scared, and undeserving of her harrowing ordeal.
American Animals hasn't been able to leave my thoughts for weeks, which is usually the sign of a pretty good movie. It upset me. It rattled me. It entertained me. Most of all, it made me think, about the lines people cross in the name of missing out on some vague sense of grand experience, of the differences between the reality of crime and our appealing fantasy versions of crime, and why those stories appeal to us in general. I kept thinking about the pain these four men had caused themselves and others and their regrets. I kept thinking about how smartly Layton utilizes documentary storytelling techniques to enhance his film as well as better examine the disconnect of reality-versus-movies. It's a movie that could have been told as a documentary but excels best as a hybrid of the two, one that challenges our conception. I'm shocked it wasn't credited to a book or news article as its source material, meaning Layton compiled all of this impressively on his own. This is a movie that got under my skin, that made me uncomfortable, but also thrilled me and entertained me from its first minute until its very last. I highly advise looking for American Animals once it becomes readily available.
Nate's Grade: A
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