“This is not based on a true story….this is a true story” “American Animals” assures us right from the beginning. And it’s a good thing too because if this wasn’t half-documentary, it would be much harder to believe. Director Bart Layton has made a very unique crime-thriller here, one that is more concerned with the raw emotions of the robbers than with the logistics and style of pulling off a heist; “American Animals” may not as sleek and fluid as other heist films, but what it lacks in tight storytelling, it makes up for with the sheer force of its suspense and acting.
Barry Keoghan (“Dunkirk”) and Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”) star as best friends Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka, respectively. As you can probably guess from who plays each character, Warren is a boisterous rebel while Spencer is as sullen as you can get (unless he’s hanging out with Warren, of course). When Spencer finds out that his college library houses an extremely valuable collection of rare books, he informs Warren who instantly decides he wants to steal them; Spencer agrees mainly because — as he confesses out loud — he wants a life-validating experience, not even because of the $12 million they could potentially get. In fact, no member of the four-man squad (which later includes Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson) ever seems to be in this for the money, rather only for some sort of experience. All their teen angst is acted on and the result is an unbelievable tale.
So bizarre is it, that Layton tells it in the docufiction style; throughout the narrative, the real-life, grown-up protagonists are interviewed in documentary form to tell us what they were thinking and feeling at key moments in the story. On several occasions, the cuts to the interviews can be a little off-putting, but in general, they effectively shift our focus back to how deeply each person was affected. Each one has a powerful testimony as they look back on the wild events; they tell us how all of their emotions were high at the time, but their actions are now regrettable. The most impactful testimony for me was Warren’s. He was your ultimate free spirit, the mastermind, the fearless leader, but he is the one who seems to regret everything the most even to the point of tears. The film, with its parallel documentary, shows us how a mere lust for excitement was never enough to carry them through the fear and trauma of what followed.
What’s most fascinating here (and at times hilarious) is watching four college kids plan a heist. They binge famous heist movies for reference, they research and plot out everything, they even take trips abroad by themselves to meet shady black market buyers, but when the hour actually comes, they unravel. The final quarter of the film — when the heist and everything that follows happens — is absolutely gripping. The stakes and suspense skyrocket; every performance injects us with the intensity of the moment. We are reminded that these thieves are still only kids — they get extremely nervous, queasy, and their faces are literally pale with fear. What actually happens in the heist is completely different from what they had pictured; in fact, there’s a moment where they imagine the robbery being cool and effortless like in the movies, but their fantasy is a striking contrast to what actually happens.
“American Animals” is a very thorough character piece, but it does fall short in some areas. Keoghan’s Spencer is who we are meant to sympathize with, but his moody-artist persona fades into the background once the plot progresses and it introduces more characters; for a while, the movie struggles to balance the excitement of planning a heist with the individual turmoil within each member. Even so, the post-heist scenes and interviews rightfully leave us thinking more about the people involved rather than what they stole.
Not every performance is top-notch —I dare say there is some slight overacting at times — but it’s Evan Peters who takes the gold for his portrayal of Warren; he steals every single scene he is in, he is the bullet that propels the story forward, and the entire movie would be significantly less engaging without him. He feeds the raw vibe that “American Animals” wishes to convey even by its very title. The whole film is a reality-check from the stylized heist flicks we so love, bringing us down to earth with the shocking true story of those who actually tried to live one out.