“American Animals” is an untamed heist with a thoroughly talented ensemble cast

By Steve Pulaski

Bart Layton’s American Animals is based on the very true story of a group of four college students who carried out a plan to steal exorbitantly valuable books from the school’s “special collections” library. Some of the books were published as far back as the 19th century, one of the most notable being a precious collection of paintings from John James Audubon, who once strove to paint at least one picture of every bird in North America. The book is valued at roughly $12 million. Over many months, the quartet of derelicts worked to try and combat their academic ennui by doing something they perceived as extraordinary amidst their ordinary existences.

The archives belonged to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, headed by Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd, who by now signals catastrophic things are imminent whenever she appears in a movie). The boys were Spencer (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Eric (newcomer Jared Abrahamson), “Chas” (Blake Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!!), and Warren (Evan Peters,X-Men: Days of Future Past), all of whom hopped up on heist classics like Ocean’s 11 and Reservoir Dogs like toddlers fueled by Fruit Roll-Ups and Frosted Flakes. At one point, Warren even assigns color-coded nicknames to the boys ala Tarantino’s Earth-rattling debut. One of them notes how pointless the nicknames are given the fact that they know everyone’s real name and identity. This doesn’t phase Warren. He just keeps moving forward as does the group.

It’s not that the boys’ plan is inherently flawed, although it’s not particularly airtight. The issue is when the four move to carry it out, they are ill-prepared to remain composed at the slightest delay or hiccup. More significantly, however, their own morality and second-guessing causes them to stall during crucial do-or-die moments. No amount of disguises and walkthroughs can prepare them for what happens when they are faced with the very thing that could make them rich yet the surrounding circumstances that could put them away for a very long time.

On top of blatantly borrowing elements from aforementioned heist movies, director Bart Layton’s film recalls last year’s sleeper hit I, Tonya in how he intercuts the film with real-life interviews of Spencer, Eric, Chas, and Warren. Sometimes, the same individuals make appearances in the film, as if looking at their younger selves with a great sense of remorse and utter disbelief. Much of this voids any claim that American Animals is an exceptionally original film, yet its convictions are quite remarkable. This is a film with a lot of tricks up its sleeves, toying with the verisimilitude and timeline of the events being the tip of the iceberg. For a film about an incompetent band of wannabe swindlers, American Animals is a slick product with some excellent poise where it counts.

This observation becomes increasingly enhanced by the delightful band of performances, many of which surpass the realm of workable into the “truly great” territory. After showing how unsettling and enigmatic he could be in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Keoghan is terrific all over again, playing an easily swayed beta-male with intentions that mystify. Peters finds the parallels of the real Warren, such as an integral moment when he’s talking to Keoghan’s Spencer in a grocery store, lamenting the illusion of choice and consumerism that allegedly stops people like them from getting/doing what they want. Abrahamson does fine work for a first-time performance, and Jenner, who has found a way to be notable one way or another in every film he’s done thus far, is at times sporadically excellent. Jenner plays the macho character of the group, and a scene that his him emotional, paranoid, and violent, all culminating within a few moments of vehement rage, serves as good a movie moment as any I’ve seen in 2018.

While consistently compelling, the film’s third act — which depicts the actual heist — is almost nauseating in how much tension Layton chooses to inject into the narrative. Anne Nikitin’s score pumps fitting soft-rock ballads and ambient rhythms at key points that aid a film that could’ve otherwise come off as flat during these instances. The fact that the banter between these boys and the eventual robbery they attempt find ways to be equally engaging, the latter actually overtaking some of the human interest thanks to it being done so well, is quite the feat. Like a chef preparing a dish with a lot of ingredients, Layton’s wizardry sometimes confuses the senses to the point where we, as audience members, are unsure of whether to laugh or squirm. It’s not that the film is tonally confused, but rather we are and are impulses are trying to provide us some sense of comfort.

American Animals is a real delight; it provides a dash of zest during a sometimes frustrating summer movie-season. A lot of films think they’re hitting the accelerator in the third act when really they’re showing us what we’ve already seen with a few additional doses of mayhem and camaraderie. American Animals punches hard enough to make you believe you’ve just gotten whiplash.

Grade: A-