Film Review – American Animals (2018)

The line between fact and fiction are blurred in Bart Layton‘s indie Heist feature, American Animals. As four bored Kentuckian students attempt to pull off a heist by simply watching everything from Riffifi, Ocean’s Eleven to Reservoir Dogs. Can these boys really see themselves as ‘thieves’ after watching hours of classic crime flicks?

Layton’s debut film was The Imposter, a documentary about a French Conman Frederic Bourdain, a notorious swindler who convinced a Texan family he was their long-lost son. This may have sounded too ridiculous to be true, but it was.

The Imposter was a documentary which had dramatic parts, American Animals will see fact and fiction cross paths once again. Not as a documentary but as a crime drama/thriller with documented parts, which sees the real-life protagonists sharing their experiences. What you hear from them is entirely true will be up to you. But these were young men who believed all they have to do was beat one old lady. Walk out of the library with those rare books in their hands with ease.

So what and when did this all happen?


Let’s go back to 2004, Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. We first meet Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) who thinks his middle-class life is too boring and could jeopardise his chances of becoming an artist. After a tour around his new university and Library particular and its special collections, light bulbs flash when Spencer believes stealing the rare art books his life would take an upswing.

One book particular that grabbed his attention, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, alongside several manuscripts. The heist if successful would be worth $12 million dollars (around £7 million GBP). With only an old lady, Betty Jean Gooch (Anne Dowd) guarding the books, how easy could this be?

With the aide from his fellow slacker friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer uses his artist skills, Warren searches for a ‘middle man’ (he finds in Amsterdam). The pair realises they need more people onboard. A ‘look out’ Erik Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and a getaway driver Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), with everything in place, can the boys pull this job off?

The magnetism of American Animals is the astonishment, these four slackers believed they could pull this job off with ease. By only watching old classic heist films over and over, scouting library, but failing to have backups or cover their tracks from the Police. It was an audacious, impudent attempt which was to become their downfall.

From the opening scene, ‘This is Not Based On A True Story’, the title card reads only to become ‘This Is A True Story’, you know this wasn’t going to be just another one of those generic heist films. Layton is having fun with the viewers, playing on tension as much as he’s with fact and fiction. Adding the real foursome who instigated the heist, recollecting what happened adds further fuel to the truth. If what they are saying really happened leaves you questioning your own thoughts or was it just exaggeration or simply contradiction?

The heist scene itself actually holds up well, despite the film been more about the boys and the build up. Highlighting the immaturity and questioning their real motives for the crime rather than just boredom and self-respect. We do meet BJ Gooch the real-life librarian and she asks the exact same question.

This film, if anything is a homage to those crime films the boys studied like a hawk, highlighting their approach was so wrong on many levels. American Animals is a well executed at times stylish film that is absorbing and engaging from start to finish. It may celebrate all things wrong with Americana, it’s a cautionary tale that warns our imaginations can be very dangerous tools.

Paul Devine |★★★★

Crime, Drama | UK, 2018 | 15 | 14th January 2019 (UK) | DVD, Blu-Ray | Sony Pictures | Dir. Bart Layton | Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd

Originally Posted at The Peoples Movies | 14th January 2019

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