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USA 2018
Directed by
Bart Layton
116 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

American Animals

Synopsis: It’s 2003 and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and his friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) are students at Transylvania University (yes that is its real name), Kentucky.  After Spencer tells Warren about his visit to the library’s rare book collection, they begin hatching a plan to steal its most valuable editions and enlist the help of two friends Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) in order to do so.

Hollywood heist movies are a particular pleasure because they give us the deluded opportunity to indulge our anti-social-cum-criminal fantasies completely scot-free. The originality and strength of writer-director Bart Layton’s debut feature (his previous films have all been documentaries) is that it gives us all the thrills of an Ocean's style crime caper movie but grounds them in the sobering reality that life is indeed not like the movies.

To this purpose Layton interweaves two ongoing story-telling streams. One is the to-camera reminiscences from the real-life perpetrators of the heist (yes, it is actually them although their parents are played by actors), the other is a re-enactment of the events with them played by actors.  As he demonstrated with his 2012 documentary The Imposter, Layton has a taste for truth-is-stranger-than-fiction material but here he enhances its inherent fascination with some boundary-blurring formal twists of his own and even spicing it up, particularly in the latter stages, with some Rashomon-like touches. The playfully accomplished result delivers genre thrills, black comedy and dramatic substance in a refreshingly original package. That it is, as the opening titles affirms, a true story only adds to the enjoyment.

The performances are strong with Keoghan (who played the boy on Mark Rylance’s boat in Dunkirk (2017) and Peters taking the leads (the other two actors have less to do in somewhat underwritten roles, particularly so in the case of Jenner, whose Chas, being straighter than the other three, needed some more development). These two articulate the essential motive of the crime which is not greed so much as a youthful desire to break free of suburban mundanity.  Whilst Reinhard comes up with the initial notion, it is Lipka, the more inclined to risk-taking of the two, who turns the "what-if" idea into the actual reality of stealing the books.

With all the skill of a Soderbergh, Layton plots out the crime (even including an Ocean’s style fantasy of pulling off the actual heist), taking the story to New York and Amsterdam (where the ubiquitous Udo Kier appears) before capping events with what we have all along anticipated, the gloriously bungled robbery, this farcical odyssey being tempered with the increasingly rueful commentaries of the real life  participants.  Quite brilliant!




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