‘American Animals’ Review: The Heist Movie Of The Century

The mostly true story of four young privileged men who decide to steel some rare books from their university library. They don’t need the money, they have no grudge against the university, but they want to do something incredible. It’s the story of the conception, planning and execution of the heist as well as the aftermath.

American Animals is a very conventionally plotted heist movie. It’s a film that’s well aware of the expectations of the genre, referencing numerous other heist movies throughout. The difference is that Bart Layton wants to focus on the emotional impact of each stage. The disillusionment they all feel as they all head down the same pre-ordained path to success is powerfully relatable, recalling The Graduate. Layton then beautifully captures the excitement the boys feel as they participate in a bold adventure. The plan makes them different from everyone around them and demonstrates they are capable of something uniquely extraordinary.

The boys recall the genre savvy protagonist of Mathew Vaughn’s Kick Ass but whereas Kick Ass eventually becomes a conventional superhero movie in its third act, Layton takes his film the other way. As the heist actually begins the pop-culture references and slick action movie style is abandoned in favour of a much grittier approach. The fantasy dissipates leaving only the reality of what these boys did, for no other reason than to feel special.

There’s a fabulous claustrophobia that sets in as the boys pursue their plan further and further. The possibility of success is intoxicating, immersing you in the mind-set of the young men who having planned the heist for kicks found themselves trapped in its execution. It becomes clear that backing down would mean squandering perhaps the only thing they care about. The events of the heist are blisteringly tense. The realism is excruciating. The aftermath is then profoundly melancholic. Although Layton clearly wants us to empathise with the boys, he pulls no punches regarding the morality of their actions.

Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson play the four boys and are extraordinary. They are relatable and nuanced and utterly believable. Evan Peters in particular proves once again to have immense charisma and screen presence. As he goes from furiously railing against the world that refuses reward him meaningfully for his efforts to confidently driving the action.

Layton blurs the line between fact and fiction by having the actual men themselves interviewed alongside the action. Layton’s background is in documentary film which shows as he’s able to engage with his subjects and gain tremendous insight from them. They are completely open about the motivations that drove them to these extremes. Where accounts contradict each other, he portrays both options, a similar technique to that used in I, Tonya. Often this is used for comedic effect.

The popular culture references throughout the film never feel contrived. They aren’t set dressing, or a weak attempt at making the plot relatable, but rather the method by which these kids contextualise information to each other. Referring to a potentially life changing decision as a “red pill-blue pill moment” conveys to the subject the magnitude of the choice they are about to make. This is perhaps the most realistic portrayal of how pop culture is used by people I have seen in film.

American Animals is simultaneously an extraordinary modern example of the heist film whilst also being a complete deconstruction of them. It parodies the romanticised portrayal of the gentlemen criminal and explores our fascination with them. It’s a funny and incredibly exciting suspense film. And it does all of this whilst telling the extraordinary true story of four boys who got bored and decided to steal some valuable books.

Five Stars

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