"This is not based on a true story," says the title card proceeding this entertaining true crime film. American Animals uniquely combines the real men who carried out an elaborate, if misguided, heist with actors who play them. Think about the best true crime show you have seen that has A-grade reenactments mixed with interviews from the key players. Writer-director Bart Layton takes one step towards a narrative feature while still nestling in a documentary.
The story center around Spencer(Barry Keoghan) who wants to be an artist but quickly tells us that he has experienced enough pain to actually produce art. His boredom is largely spent around hanging with Warren(Evan Peters), a wild but charming dude prone to dumb actions. When Spencer visits a rare books collection at a library, he becomes infatuated with a volume of bird illustrations touted as the most expensive book in America. He soon gets the notion to steal it and Warren latches onto the idea with a manic determination. They soon enlist Eric(Jared Abranhmanson) who has his eyes set on being an FBI agent and so must know things that will help them. They also get privileged Chas (Blake Jenner) to serve as a getaway driver.
Their planning involves Reservoir Dogs code names, model recreations, and secret meetings. All during which we start to feel Spencer's hesitation as things move closer to reality. This is one of the ways in which American Animals separates itself from other heist films. The stakes are high here. As things approach the date of the robbery and no one wants to shut it down, the film explores the powerful nature of group mentalities and peer pressure. The heist itself is racked with tension as the boys are faced with violent actions that weigh heavy on their morality.
The back and forth between the real guys telling the story and the narrative film segments is riveting to watch. The film takes on qualities of Rashomon as we see different accounts of how things went down. Layton regularly has the actors break the fourth wall and even has the real people bust into the narrative segments. This all gives American Animals a fresh verve. The film is an engaging ride from start to finish.
The four performances are all good but Keoghan and Peters shine. The performances never fell like impersonations, which would never have worked given that we regularly see the real men. Keoghan as Spencer provides the film's emotional weight. His performance is like watching someone in a car crash at slow speed. He makes us feel
Spencer's growing fear and reluctance. Peters excels as Warren. He should continue to play self-destructive, charming douches as he is able to balance the dissatisfaction and bravado of Warren so perfectly. He gives a thoughtful and effective performance doesn't allow us to ever write Warren off as a complete tool.
Energetic and vividly brought to life, American Animals is a blast to experience. It is the type of film that you want to see with friends and then go out for beers afterward. The film thoughtfully injects real consequences and dread into the heist genre without sacrificing the entertainment value. I hope that Layton is able to find another story to tell in this creative way, combining the real-life interviews with a great narrative film. Think I, Tonya in structure but with more authenticity.