Hot Take: A mix of crime drama and documentary with a whole lot of love for the heist movie sub-genre chock full of references to classic heist films or films featuring heists. Smart and fascinating with a combination of humor and suspense.
Mark Twain once assessed, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” American Animals is the latest evidence that Twain was spot on with his assessment. The docudrama about a group of college students who attempted to rip off the Transylvania University’s special collections library in 2004 blends a young, talented cast and their real-life counterparts who re-tell the story documentary style. It has a ring of I, Tonya to it, if I, Tonya were to actually feature the real Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly and LaVona Golden. American Animals also shows writer/director Bart Layton’s love of the heist sub-genre as the film is littered with homages and hat tips to some of the more iconic heist films over the years including The Thomas Crown Affair, Ocean’s 11, Reservoir Dogs and even the heist scene from The Dark Knight. It’s the stylistic choices by Layton that drives the film as we’ve seen so many heist movies in the past, even ones based on actual heists, so Layton’s blend of his own style with films that likely acted as inspiration for the criminals surprisingly makes it refreshing and fun to watch despite the film’s darker, more nihilistic overtones.
American Animals details the story of four college acquaintances — Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) — and their plan to rob the special collections section of the Transylvania University library of some rare, priceless books. It also features the real life Reinhard, Lipka, Borsuk and Allen as well as interviews with librarian Betty Jean Gooch (played by Ann Dowd in the fictional account) which gives the film more realistic clout even if it’s more an exercise in showing how even human memory can be faulty as some of the parties involved have conflicting views of the events detailed. The film sneakily intersperses some fictional interviews with actors playing the parents of the four students/criminals and a professor from the university.
Brought to the big screen with the help of movie distributor MoviePass Ventures, it’s natural to proceed with caution since the other film they helped distribute was the godawful Gotti released in June also. Having watched the film industry for some time, it’s easy to draw similarities between MoviePass Ventures and Blockbuster Studios, the film distribution arm of the now defunct Blockbuster Video. So, the fact they funded Gotti (a terrible film) and the efforts of Blockbuster Studios which churned out one bad film after another, it didn’t bode well for American Animals. However, American Animals was critically received more positively (86% Tomatometer vs. Gotti‘s 0%). The crime docudrama is a fun watch. The young cast has a lot of promise. Previously, Keoghan appeared in Dunkirk while Peters appeared in two X-Men films as Quicksilver. Jenner has the smallest role of the four but has the most impressive resume with a breakout performance in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and The Edge of Seventeen. Abrahamson is the least known quantity but holds his own. Dowd as the librarian continues to be excellent although it’s hard not to feel a little unnerved when she appears after her role in Hereditary. (Sorry, Ann! You scare me a
little lot now!) The story itself which is stranger than fiction is brought to life by Layton’s approach and the docudrama touch gives the film more credibility than a simple opening credits message of “Based on a True Story” would provide.
Depending on your tolerance for heist films which are sprinkled throughout every film season, American Animals is worthy of the crowded genre it attempts to infiltrate. If you don’t think heist films are plentiful, American Animals is at least the fourth heist film of 2018. There’s a precision and deliberateness about American Animals that elevates it in a genre that, when done wrong, can be disastrous. The addition of the real-life actors appearing throughout the film both as an echo to the film in their interviews and in the shadows of the film providing a lingering presence that reminds how this film is closer to reality than fiction. Obviously, there’s fiction infused throughout but even the real-life actors help shed light on that as they struggle to recount the events that re-shaped their lives 14 years ago.
American Animals is a cinephile’s paradise and even if you’re not interested in the movie itself, provides fun hat tips to other films and gives a second reason to watch (or re-watch) the film.
Isn’t life depressing enough without watching four privileged college kids thinking they need to experience more by knocking off some old books worth millions of bucks just to feel alive?