American Animals

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UK Release Date 7th September 2018
Director Bart Layton
Starring Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters
Runtime 114 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 10th September 2018

“This film is not based on a true story” the bold opening credit states, followed by the words “not based on” fading from view. It’s an immediately unsettling title. ‘Based on a true story’ movies have a reputation for taking massive artistic licence with the material and on occasion being outright lies (bless the Cohens). Is the movie trying to tell you the story of what actually happened or is it just snatching the central idea instead of coming up with its own? In this instance, it would very much seem to be the former.

American Animals purports to tell the true story of four American teenagers, who, in 2003 conspired to steal rare books from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky in a heist modelled on any number of movies. The central protagonists in the heist were Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), a talented artist at the university and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a student on a full athletic scholarship and nominally the bad influence in the relationship. Reinhard spots the book in a tour of the rare collections area of the library and suggests to Lipka that they steal it as it’s only security would appear to be an appointment and the librarian Ms Gooch. They soon realise that the job will take more manpower so recruit an old friend of Reinhard’s, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and local rich boy Chas (Blake Jenner) as all heists need some sort of financial backing. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly to plan.

From the outset director Bart Layton plays with perceptions and reality. From the aforementioned opening title, he wants us to know that truth isn’t necessarily relevant to the telling of the tale. Interspersed with the action he drops in documentary style talking heads with the protagonists and their parents the former vainly trying to explain themselves whilst at the same time undermining each other’s view of what actually happened, whilst the latter echo the audience’s general disbelief of the seeming lack of motivation for such an audacious scheme.

It would be easy of the movie to go heavy on the small-town disaffection amongst the group and play this out as a simple skin deep tale of boredom but Layton builds it to far more than that. As we see the plan gradually form from the drag of teenage pot smoking, it’s all too easy to see how the protagonists got gradually sucked into the mess. Neither Reinhard nor Lipka can agree on who actually conceived the idea, both having conflicting views of when it was even mentioned, let alone how it went from stupid idea to fully fledged heist. And it’s this drip, drip of misinformation and the collective engagement from the group that makes the movie such an utterly enthralling watch.

Layton, whose first non-documentary price this is, has an eye and an ear for the building of dread. Not the supernatural nonsense dread of a horror movie but the grinding portentous dread of the inevitable disaster. The animals of the title are found in the $12m book The Birds of America by John James Audubon, a nineteenth century painter. Images are focused in on early in the movie, emphasising the hunter and prey in the bird world. It’s not subtle but it’s certainly effective. Layton dovetails this effortlessly with the everyday life of the teenagers as they glide effortlessly towards their doom, with all the awareness of the prey painted so beautifully in Audubon’s book.

And what of the teenagers’ motivation? Brilliantly left hanging in the air by the movie, it’s one that you will have to ponder yourself. Boredom, attention, rebellion, the profound desire to be something more than they are? These all play a part and are gently laid out by Layton. But it’s the increasing, pervasive feeling that the main reason they did what they did is simply that they believed it was possible, if not downright easy, that really nests in your mind and grows. We see the boys sketching up the library in intricate detail for the wall, despite earlier in the piece Borsuk stating specifically that they shouldn’t write anything down for the FBI to find, Reinhard’s meticulous scale model of the rare books room, complete with unconscious librarian that none of them can look at… All this pointless, movie-style over the top planning, all carefully building each of the boys up so that none of them feels they can speak out against the pack and stop the nonsense.

As the boys sit around their model, the movie cuts away to a perfect Ocean’s 11 style sequence where the robbery goes entirely according to plan in a flourish of A Little Less Conversation and swirling camera work. This comes to a grinding halt of course but the boys’ minds still stay on the same track. The books are just sat there, why wouldn’t they be easy to take…

The cast are great, each of the boys convinces in their niche, all with just the right level of privilege to convince, without ever coming across as over the top. Bringing in the real life protagonists is dealt with well, especially the nods to unreliable narration and the parents’ utter disbelief that their boys could do something like this (and make so many blundering errors along the way you have to suspect). One parent weeps as he considers his child’s role in the mess, Allen’s mother sits in her middle-class bubble espousing her son’s wonderful entrepreneurial streak. It’s pitiful stuff either way but you never once feel sorry for the perpetrators, they knew what they were doing and the cowardly way they all face dealing with the one other human being outside their parents is genuinely painful to watch. Ann Down is perfect for Ms. Gooch, a pivotal role in anchoring the movie in the true, real life horror of the boys’ actions. The real Ms. Gooch appears only at the end, equally mystified at the teenagers’ actions but resolute in herself (she still works at the library we find out in the credits).

In Brief.

American Animals is an utterly mesmerising horror show of casual privilege and dire consequences. Layton’s stepping stone to full fiction is a masterful piece of work. The grinding terror of suburban ennui is brilliant laid out and the conflicting accounts of the truth add to the head scratching disbelief at what these people did. Anchored very much in reality, this is not a heist movie in any traditional sense and I would guess that anyone going in for a heist movie is going to come out disappointed. This movie is so much more than that. With a deep streak of gallows humour and paced to absolute perfection to crank up the tension to almost unbearable levels (the magnificent sound design helps greatly with this), this is a movie that won’t leave you for some time. 

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