Review: American Animals

Though it doesn’t really amount to much in the end, director Bart Layton’s decision to claim up front that his heist movie is a bona fide “true story”—as opposed to a movie “inspired” by one—is a fairly bold step, and compels him to add inserts wherein the actual people involved in the caper provide details, albeit from inside prison, thus letting us know rather soon how the heist turns out. It’s not really much of a spoiler, because despite unerring confidence in their criminal skills, the two masterminds behind the robbery, art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and his less savvy pal Warren (Evan Peters), who’s the beneficiary of a sports scholarship, don’t really give the impression that they know what they’re really getting into.

The caper takes place at the college they’re attending in Kentucky. The fact that it’s called Transylvania University is a good enough joke by itself, though Layton, honoring his pledge to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, doesn’t take advantage of it. The school library has a number of valuable first editions, and the pair’s aim is to steal a few and sell them for lots of money on the black market in Europe, though, in fact, money isn’t really the reason they’re doing it, and in the end it probably would have been better if they had been in it for the cash, because they probably would have given up before they got too far.

Certainly the most fictive element of the plan is to use older heist movies for research, which begs the question right off the bat: Couldn’t they tell by watching Kubrick’s The Killing that these kinds of jobs rarely go off well? Eventually, they bring in two other friends (Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson) for assistance, and the attendant complications split the difference between admirably methodical and completely silly. Had they bothered to watch Reservoir Dogs, for instance, they’d have realized that giving themselves color-coded names would only end in infamy. There are also potent comic bits on the use of disguises during a particularly ominous practice run-through. 

All this dodgy presentation adds to the viewer’s sense of doomed anticipation, so by the time the actual heist occurs, we’re pretty much on edge, prepared for the worst, and Layton doesn’t disappoint. But for all the artful direction and careful use of those interviews, there’s something peculiarly lacking in the film, mainly a sense of purpose. Layton has essentially produced an anti-heist film in that the viewer gains no sense of suspense or excitement, but rather a sinking feeling that these fools are going down. Layton’s got guts and good storytelling sense, but he might have chosen a tale that was a little less descriptive of American male stupidity. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015).

American Animals home page in Japanese.

photo (c) AI Film LLC/Channel Four Television Corporation/American Animal Pictures Limited 2018

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