Stylistically, it’s an interesting mashup between a thoughtful heist film and your basic documentary, but American Animals, while entertaining, doesn’t necessarily deliver on both fronts. While detailing the story of a group of college friends who rob their library of extremely rare books, the film covers the bases of what happened but doesn’t delve deeply enough into the why of it all.
Ostensibly the story based on the friendship between Warren (a manic Evan Peters) and Spencer (a thoughtful Barry Keoghan), two college friends who, in their boredom and suffering from a severe and chronic case of white privilege, plan the perfect crime for no discernible reason other than the financial gain. They pull in a couple other random acquaintances, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) and face down the only thing between them potentially millions of dollars, the dutiful librarian (Ann Dowd). Intermixed with the action the real Warren, Spencer, Eric, Chas and very briefly, BJ the librarian recount, reveal and rework the details of the crime and their part in it. It’s like a high-end Dateline, with great actors and higher production value.
The filmmaking is excellent and the style of the film is easy to grasp onto, even when none of the actors resemble their counterparts very much. And as the film recounts details, some forgotten, some disputed, some challenged, it’s an interesting way to examine a crime such as this, with Rashoman-like differences despite the assertion at the beginning of the film that “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” Sure, it’s true, but is it honest? And while the film falls short of outright celebrating the boys, they are shown as aggressive, bumbling and moronic at times, it still is a film all about them with very little insight about and from their main victim (the librarian).
Writer-director Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter was gripping in strange ways, and he’s brought a similar approach here, his first feature, if you can call it that. Keoghan is, once-again, able to convey a surprising amount of complexity in his doe-eyed reserved nature and Evan Peters is as spastic and annoying as the real-life Warren appears to be. Little insight is given into why Chas and Eric join in and both actors and their counterparts suffer because of it. But, what could’ve been a mediocre heist flick is made exponentially more interesting by the approach to it, and the quick pace and continual juxtaposition between styles works in its favor.
My Grade – B-