REVIEW: American Animals

Yeah Evan Peters, breaking into the Pentagon to let loose Magneto as the superfast Quicksilver is cool, but… have you ever clumsily stolen a couple of dusty books from a poorly guarded library before?

Based on a true story following four college boys – Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Erick Borsuk and Chas Allen – American Animals centres on one of the greatest art heists in American history, as the group of men target a library possessing the rare and antique John James Audubon book; The Birds of America.

In this documentarian-type crime drama, from up and coming filmmaker, Bart Layton, a sickeningly enjoyable, unreliably told tale withers from within American Animals, boosted by a handful of extremely adult performances from four young talents. Shot as half a literal documentary, complete with interviews, and the other half as a gripping thriller with comedic value, American Animals is as experimental as they come, juggling a plethora of themes whilst refusing to shy away from creating a uniquely engaging experience.

(Courtesy Sundance, 2018)

So I’ll be honest with you, I had no freakin’ clue that the American Animals director, Bart Layton, had previously only directed a film called The Imposter… which happened to be a documentary. So seeing American Animals and unexpectedly observing Layton’s intriguing directing style, I was actually rather shocked and taken aback about what to think about this film and how it was technically executed. American Animals is first and foremost a crime drama, shot like any other film, acted liked any other film and designed, for the most half, like any other film. Although the experience is continuously intercut with interviews from the real life people who were involved in the heist incident. The real Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen all featured in this film as both narrators and essentially four separate bases for the film’s narrative to work off of. This inclusion of interviews and first person narration really allowed for a wholly different experience to be felt in American Animals, separating it entirely from other crime dramas.

In a way, American Animals can be seen in its design as extremely similar to the construction of Richard Linklater’s black comedy Bernie; although, instead of being and feeling entirely fake like that movie (between you and me, I really don’t like Bernie), American Animals used the documentarian technique to greater effect. A sense of realism was felt throughout the entirety of the film as whenever the narrative pulled back to address an interviewee, the tenser, rawer moments would feel more jarring and horrifying to think the events depicted actually happened and effected real people. At first, honestly, I was not a huge fan of the included interviews, but as the movie drew on, I grew more and more fascinated with how they effected the story and somewhat heightened the narrative’s gravitas.

Another intriguing feature the documentary elements of American Animals added to the overall film was forcing an inclusion of the unreliable narrator technique. Similar to American Psycho, another film centred around the American Dream in such dark and comically twisted ways, the unreliable narrator technique is used in American Animals to really frazzle and force a debatable outlook upon the film’s events. When one interviewee notes a series of events to happen one way and then another interviewee states the events to have unravelled in a completely different way, the film is gifted with such glorious ambiguity, that the audience is never treated entirely like idiots. We, watching the film, really feel like we’re more or less just observing different sides of a story and deciding whom’s opinion we trust most. However, the film never gives exact answers, because the interviewees never do – American Animals is purposely vague in servitude to a greater undertaking of unique storytelling for we, the audience, hardly experience at the cinemas nowadays.

Now there are times the inclusion of the interviewees and the ultimate reliance on documentarian filmmaking does not work in American Animals. Yes, the first few times the movie cuts away from its central narrative to meet the real life victims is completely jarring and left-of-field, which is cool, but the cuts on occasion do threaten the natural flow of the film. The pacing is left a little off and the movie in general just feels really quite bloated. American Animals is a long film for which I would almost forgive for the well-executed detail and eventual climactic pay-offs in some of its weirder moments, but at the end of the day, the movie is just a real slowpoke in the runtime race.

There are sequences where (actually when I say ‘sequences’, I may just mean one scene) characters would address the camera followed by a smash cut to their interviewee counterpart, who would pick up the dialogue from there. Elements like that would have been cool, if it was just done more than once… but from memory, I honestly think the fourth wall break happened only a single time and never happened again. So little moments like so would just feel left out and awkward in the grand scheme of things. However, I can not continue to completely fault a clear auteur filmmaker like Layton who’s work in American Animals clearly proves there are still new ways to construct a film and play with genre tropes efficiently and artistically.

The make-up design really stood out in this film and must be applauded in certain sequences involving older gents. On more technical terms, the music choices as well were all just incredible; American Animals may have one of my favourite film soundtracks since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Yet, above all else, I really have to hand it to the cast for not only giving four impressive performances but also acting extremely well as mirror images to the real life men who feature alongside them in this film. Barry Keoghan leads Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner down the rabbit hole to some really solid material however its Evan Peters whose performance really grabbed me in this film. I may have never seen American Horror Story but I definitely will now that Peters is certainly an actor on my radar. I mean, Peters has been the best part of the recent X-Men movies too, but here, the guy really shines with constant flashes of angst, hunger and fun sparking across his character’s general demeanor. I would even consider Peters for Awards season – that’s how standout his lead performance is in this film.

Important also to note how well American Animals traverses down a thematic study of the American Dream; the yearning to make it BIG and earn untold fortunes but also to live a life of excitement and edginess. To be acknowledged for an achievement, whether said achievement is good or bad.  American Animals may not present anything entirely new in its meaning, but its thoughts and ideas are clear and viable in its thick narrative.

Additionally, the ending of Layton’s crime flick might just be one of my favourite conclusions of a film in 2018. The way the story ultimately wraps up feels so fitting and vastly fascinating that it even becomes difficult to fault the film as the credits begin to roll. American Animals is one of those films that ends so well, you leave the cinema on such a good note you forget some of the slips and misses the movie had in its overall runtime.

In hindsight, I liken American Animals mostly to Ocean’s 11 if you were to make said film that little bit more serious and swapped out the cast of characters and overall feel of the film for the cast and subtle tonings of The Social Network. American Animals may not be perfect, but it is a unique and chilling experience. Built from the thrill of a film and the fascination of documentary, American Animals almost garners the best of both worlds if it were not for its sometimes ‘animalistic’ nature.

American Animals is a bloody… CRUSADE!!


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