Possibly best known as “the other MoviePass movie,” Bart Layton’s AMERICAN ANIMALS is a bold attempt to deliver a facts-based documentary by way of dramatic storytelling that incorporates actors alongside their real-life counterparts (!). Layton’s stylistic handling of the 2004 Transylvania University library heist (centering around a priceless edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America) is impressive, but, ultimately, ends up being far more engaging than the actual story.
Evan Peters (Quicksilver, from the most recent X-MEN movies) and Barry Keoghan (THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) star as Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard — childhood friends who feel the need to rebel against their spectacularly ‘average’ lives. In order to escape little more than relative boredom, the duo enlist the help of two fellow students, Chas Allen (EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!‘s Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Canadian actor Jared Abrahamson) to steal $12 million-worth of art (more than double the estimated real world value) from the school library’s seemingly inexplicable ‘Rare Book Room’.
To Bart Layton’s directorial credit, the four real-life criminals (despite appearing as themselves throughout the film) are never glamorized, or purposefully highlighted as being deserving of any real kind of sympathy — but, ultimately, that is also to the movie’s disservice. Despite believable performances from the main cast (as well as the brief glimpses of charm present during individual interviews with the actual perpetrators), the group is mostly unlikeable – fictional and non-fictional – and you may not end up caring what happens to them during or after the robbery. They were, essentially, privileged kids from good backgrounds who felt a strange sense of entitlement after watching one too many heist films.
***SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING***
Layton’s use of the real people involved in the story lets you know from the very beginning that 1) they all survived the heist, and 2) they definitely did not get away with it. With the stakes now lowered considerably, most* of the remaining drama revolves around whether or not they severely harmed Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd); the sole ‘Rare Book Room’ librarian on duty that day.
*There is a last-minute reveal that makes you question a key part of the story — and it’s an absolutely intriguing question, BTW, that probably should have been the heart of the film.
Without question, AMERICAN ANIMALS has its faults (both inherently problematic, and otherwise), but it is also captivating and beautifully made. However, if this story was delivered as a straight-forward Netflix-style documentary, it could have ended up being the best movie of 2018… at least, so far.
Three and a Half out of Five Beers.