Simon Dillon reviews the docu-drama heist film.

American Animals

A caption at the beginning of American Animals initially informs the audience that "This film is not based on a true story", before the words "not based on" disappear. It's a good joke, and one that sets up the supposed factual veracity of what follows in quite a forthright manner. At any rate, regardless of whether liberties are taken in the telling, American Animals is a riveting docu-drama heist film.

Writer/director Bart Layton intersperses his narrative with interviews with the real people involved in the heist - Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, as well as one or two other key people in the story (including librarian Betty Jean Gooch). Their characters are portrayed in the bulk of the film by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, and Ann Dowd as the afore-mentioned librarian.

In 2004, disaffected Kentucky University students Spencer and Warren conspire to steal rare books (worth several million dollars) and sell them to a "fence" in the Netherlands. They plan by researching classic heist movies such as The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi and Reservoir Dogs, but during the audacious heist, things don't exactly go to plan.

Layton coaxes great performances from his leads, especially Keoghan and Peters. The film delivers what is expected of the genre, building up a considerable head of suspenseful steam in the heist itself. However, what makes the film stand out is the quiet tragedy in the central relationship between Spencer and Warren. Both bright students from not exactly poor backgrounds, they nonetheless feel disappointed in life to the point where they come to believe the heist is a way to make their mark on the world, rather than disappear into an oblivion of humdrum everyday life. The duality of their intelligence and utter stupidity is ultimately quite affecting, as it touches on an almost spiritual need for significance that is bound to resonate with many in the audience.

In short, American Animals is suspenseful, darkly funny, insightful and poignant (albeit with the usual warnings about strong language) and comes highly recommended. CR

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