Based on an audacious true story, American Animals is both terrifically entertaining and superbly performed by a strong cast. Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter) makes his narrative debut here, but he also draws on his roots by blending footage of the real-life culprits with their acting counterparts, and the results are spectacular.
Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is a child of privilege who enters Kentucky’s Transylvania University to obtain more life experience. He certainly gets it in the form of Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), who is attending the school on an athletic scholarship but projects an air of apathy. When Spencer describes the rare volumes he saw in the university’s private collection, including John James Audubon’s extremely valuable Birds of America, Warren almost blithely decides that they should steal them just for the hell of it. Spencer goes along for the ride, drawn to the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
As their plans take shape, Warren realizes that more hands are needed for the heist, so nerdy Eric Borsuk (Jared Abramson) and jock Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are brought into the fold. Needing a way to liquidate the stolen goods, Warren takes a quick trip to Amsterdam to make arrangements with a shady fence (hilariously played by the legendary Udo Kier).
Their naïveté becomes blatantly obvious, however, especially when they decide to disguise themselves as old men to invade a college library. Of course, the best-laid plans are always bound to fall to pieces when actually attempted, and the comic caper makes a shift into grim reality as the neophyte criminals realize that the mistakes they’ve made will lead the FBI directly to their doorstep.
The always-intense Peters gives a firecracker performance as Warren. Abramson and Jenner are also engaging, but it’s Keoghan who provides the true heart and soul of the film. His attitude veers from morally concerned to devil-may-care in a heartbeat, and he becomes ever more mournful as the pointlessness of the crime sinks in.
Layton’s usage of the documentary footage is quite ingenious. The real characters frequently contradict what is taking place in the narrative version, and they even disagree with each other’s memories, which makes the story even more intriguingly obtuse. What really happened and what didn’t?
The encroaching darkness in the story is announced by composer Anne Nikitin’s shift from cool jazz to intense electronic sounds. Meanwhile, cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland’s smooth camerawork becomes sweaty and jittery, which matches the escalating emotions of the characters as they realize they’re no longer predators but prey. American Animals indeed.
To reinforce the theme, Layton inserts shots of Audubon’s nature studies, some of them quite bloody. It’s brilliantly assembled — and it all works so damn well.
American Animals was reviewed Mar. 9, 2018, at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas. It is scheduled for nationwide release on June 1.